The real issue -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

The real issue

Pakistan Press Foundation

The brazen attack on Geo News’ anchorperson Hamid Mir should have highlighted the perils of being a journalist in Pakistan and galvanised media persons, but it has undeniably divided them. The attack should have helped bring all stakeholders, including media houses, political parties, the government and the armed forces on the same page against the challenges of rampant lawlessness, terrorism and violence, but instead it increased polarisation in the country.

The blame game is on. Who is a traitor and who is not? What is the national interest? Who remains its sole custodian and arbiter? Which institution transgressed its mandate? What should be the role of our spy agencies? What are the red lines for media houses? What is responsible journalism and what’s not?

The Jang/Geo Group – Pakistan’s biggest media house – is being dubbed a traitor and is being threatened amidst calls for banning its news channel and newspapers for what some can call irresponsible or sensational journalism in the aftermath of the attack on Hamid Mir – nothing less, nothing more.

Pakistan’s defamation laws, regulatory authorities and courts should be able to address this issue. If the laws are ineffective or regulatory authorities are weak and dysfunctional and fail to provide relief to an aggrieved individual or institution, the episode provides an opportunity to develop an effective legal framework – as has been done in all civilised societies where press freedom remains synonymous with responsible journalism.

People there can approach the justice system if they believe that they have been wronged by any media outlet. The application of defamation and libel laws is never selective or aimed to benefit the powerful alone, especially in the advanced democracies from where we have imported the concept of press freedom. Any private citizen manages to get swift justice there, unlike Pakistan where court cases drag on from grandfather to grandson.

If mudslinging and spreading unsubstantiated allegations is bad journalism – which it certainly is – then one Pakistani media group cannot be singled out for this offence. If one has triggered the wrath of Pakistan’s mightiest institution, others have been riding roughshod with lesser mortals, including the targeted vilification campaign directed against the Jang/Geo Group itself.

But bad journalism by others should be no excuse to follow suit. It is time for many of us in the media industry, including journalists, news managers, and owners, to be self-critical. Let’s reassert the basic universal values of journalism, which calls for accuracy, objectivity, balance and fairness in reporting. Yes, we have to be current, we have to be candid and at times controversial, but the most important of all the four ‘Cs’ of journalism remains credibility. As the old cliché of the world of journalists say that you are as good as your last story.

The debate on ethics and values of journalism, especially in the electronic media, has been raging within professionals even before the April 19 attack on Hamid Mir. It is time to do it in a more structured way by involving all the stakeholders, and develop not just a voluntary code of conduct but also recommend improvements in the defamation laws and regulatory framework.

Responsible, factual and objective journalism, which keeps a demarcation between facts, opinions and allegations, remain the best way to protect press freedom. Effective laws against defamation and libel should not be seen as curbing press freedom, but protecting it. In every international media organisation the first lesson drilled in the minds of both reporters and desk-persons is how to avoid the pitfalls of defamation, libel and slander while reporting.

This ongoing blame game, barrage of allegations and counter-allegations and awarding tickets of being patriotic or unpatriotic will not lead us anywhere. It is time to do some serious soul searching and try to resolve the issue with maturity, restraint and sticking to the legal course.

Fanning public emotions with the help of various political and religious parties and wilfully or inadvertently taken unlawful steps against Jang/Geo – or any other group for that matter – is charting a dangerous course. Organised incidents of outright intimidation and harassment to vilification campaign against Jang/Geo and efforts to block the distribution of its newspapers or removing Geo News from the cables or pushing it on the lower slot are unlawful. Non-state actors and various illegal and legal pressure groups can take advantage of this situation to target and intimidate the media or for that matter any voice of dissent.

Pakistan remains one of the most dangerous countries for journalists. It will become even more dangerous if our major stakeholders, including the top civil and military leaders, fail to take the lead in guaranteeing press freedom at every cost. So far the signs from the top are encouraging – from the prime minister to the army chief, all have vowed to protect the press freedom.

It is now necessary to put across this message down to the ranks. When legal means are available, disgruntled individuals should not be allowed to exploit the situation and target any media house – even if ‘right or wrong’,s there are complaints against it.

The most urgent need is that civil and military leaders should take note of the direct threats to journalists affiliated with the Jang/Geo group and all the other media houses and try to ensure maximum security in this age of lawlessness.

Individuals, political parties or organisations have every right to boycott this or that newspaper or news channel. That is a matter of choice and also of readers’ or viewers’ preference. But trying to force this boycott on others in an organised manner to stifle a media group is setting a wrong precedent and should be seen as an effort to muzzle the independent press.

The biggest irony of the Hamid Mir episode is that amidst all these relevant or irrelevant questions and the blame game, the real issue is almost lost – the precarious state of law and order in Pakistan.

This is a country where no one is safe – including journalists, who relatively enjoy a sort of a privileged status in the society. We have seen professionals, including doctors, teachers and lawyers, being systematically targeted in major cities by religious fanatics and extremists. Unsuspecting civilians – men, women and children – have been the victims of suicide bombings and other acts of terror. The unabated bloodletting has consumed senior government officials, politicians, religious scholars, clerics and students. There are scores of policemen who have been martyred in their line of duty.

Our soldiers and defence installations remain on the hit list of Al-Qaeda-inspired local militant groups, especially the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban with which our civilian government is locked in the so-called peace talks. From our senior-most officials of the armed forces down to the foot soldier, all have borne the brunt of terrorism.

The internal challenge of terrorism and extremism is the most crucial, life and death issue for today’s Pakistan. It is so unfortunate that this issue has been placed on the backburner and those institutions which remain the best bet for a democratic, prosperous and peaceful Pakistan appear to be at loggerheads with one another.

This situation benefits only the external and internal enemies of Pakistan. This strengthens only the forces of chaos and anarchy, trying to bring down the state of Pakistan from within. Who else but the military leadership has greater awareness of this grave challenge? It needs to keep this most important issue in the main national narrative – no matter what the distracters of Pakistan’s armed forces try to do in the covert or overt manner by bringing any secondary issues to the forefront. The armed forces and the people of Pakistan must stay on course.

The writer is editor The News, Karachi. Email: amir.zia@thenews.com.pk

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