No new media guidelines needed -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

No new media guidelines needed

Babar Ayaz

The establishment is considering setting up a defence journalists’ and analysts’ think-tank and interacting with them more frequently. But the fear is that such forums eventually degenerate and become a coterie of those who toe the establishment’s national security policy.

Last Tuesday, I had expressed disillusionment with the slow progress in making operational the Press Council of Pakistan (PCP). The urgency of this task should be realised by stakeholders now in view of the recent report published in local newspapers about how the civil-military nexus is to make the media ‘fall in line’. This report says that the establishment is mulling over giving “policy guidelines” to the private media so that their coverage does not hurt the ‘national interest’.

Now, left to the establishment, the term national interest can be stretched to any level. The question remains: who has the right to decide what national interest is? We have seen that in 1971, the people who urged and wrote that power should be transferred to the Awami League and condemned a military operation were dubbed by the establishment as working against the national interest. Many were imprisoned and tortured. In the early 1970s, when Mr Bhutto banned the National Awami Party and started a military operation in Balochistan, once again the section of the media that wrote against the move was penalised. In the late 1970s, General Ziaul Haq started sending the so-called mujahideen to Afghanistan and was luring the Americans to participate in this dangerous venture to destabilise the Afghan socialist government. I once wrote in a weekly magazine, Current, that this dangerous policy would suck in the Soviets into Afghanistan. When it was picked up by the Kabul Times, I was asked what my source of information was. The spooks who grilled me said I was working against the national interest and did not believe that somebody could write this on the basis of analysis. What has been labelled national interest by the establishment has, in most cases, proven to be a ‘national disaster’. When the Taliban were being supported, national interest was misplaced. Today, when the establishment’s national security policy is treating Afghanistan as a country that gives strategic depth to Pakistan, and making India bleed through non-state actors is challenged, it is considered against the national interest by the civil and military bureaucracy. History has proved many times that it was Pakistan’s establishment that worked against the national interest with a delusion that those who challenge it are against it. Habib Jalib appropriately wrote about this egregious mistake in 1971:

“Mohabbat golion say bo rahay ho, gumaan tum ko kay rasta kaat rahay ho, yaqeen mujhko kay manzil kho rahay ho.”

The news report also says that the establishment is considering setting up a defence journalists’ and analysts’ think-tank and interacting with them more frequently. This is a good move as more communication always helps in understanding each other’s views. But the fear is that such forums eventually degenerate and become a coterie of those who toe the establishment’s national security policy.

However, this cannot absolve the media. At times, wittingly or unwittingly, it goes against the interests of society. Some of the establishment’s concerns are genuine, e.g. glorification of terrorists, undue coverage of their organisations, projection of the views of their apologists who justify terrorism whilst taking cover under the false ceiling of sovereignty and nationalism and the spotlight on religious clerics who incite violence against other sects and countries.

But for this, I must hasten to add, the country does not need any separate law or code of ethics. All the government has to do is activate the PCP and make it an effective organisation. The PCP is not without teeth. Section 15 of the ordinance gives the PCP power to take appropriate action against a publication or a journalist. In case of non-compliance of the decision by a concerned newspaper or news agency, the competent authority is authorised “to suspend the publication for a specific period not exceeding seven issues or recommend cancellation of the declaration in the event of persistent non-compliance”.

Many who follow the English media only may think that the problem of code of conduct violation is not serious. But those who keep track of the Urdu – and other national languages – media, can quote a number of news reports and analysis where the code has been violated, particularly by supporting bigotry and sectarian hatred. The same holds true for the electronic media.

Even in the English media, there are a number of examples where ‘inspired reporting’ has been published or aired in the name of investigative journalism. A good editor or a news editor can smell it from a distance and ask the reporter to further work on the story. But the prevailing working conditions in the media and tough competition leave no time for the dying institution of effective news editors and editors to hold back the story or edit it, keeping in mind that it is not libellous or planted.

Campaigning for a good cause is not bad journalism provided it is done impartially. But writing reams of paper to campaign against an individual or an organisation with careless usage of invectives and negative adjectives is not good journalism. A journalist has to report and analyse, giving the pros and cons of the subject and should refrain from being judgmental. Some leading journalists write lengthy stories quoting unnamed sources. Not a single named source is quoted to support the basic thrust of the story. Again, no editor throws it back to the journalist asking him to substantiate the claims. I have been a reporter and know well that many times the sources do not want to be identified, but then other verifiable facts have to be added to give credibility to the report.

The issues before journalists regarding a code of ethics are not peculiar to Pakistan. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and its member organisations across the globe say: “We need to invest in quality information and quality journalism.” The British media has been evolving a self-regulation system since the1930s and has an effective complaints commission.

The desire to check unethical and unprofessional journalism is quite old. The first Press Council was set up in Sweden in 1874. According to Stig Nordlund, “The Publicist Club, with journalists, newspaper editors and other publishers as its members, had, on a number of occasions in the beginning of the 1900s, served as self-appointed tribunals to hear complaints against newspapers.” So we are over a century behind in self-accountability.

(To be continued)

The writer can be reached at ayazbabar@gmail.com
Source: Daily Times
Date:7/6/2010