Role of informed citizenry -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Role of informed citizenry

By: Muhammad Aftab Alam

Maya Khan’s vigilantism in her morning show has revived the debate on media ethics, right to information and right to privacy, and media and morality, and citizens’ role as media watch in the country. This is perhaps the first time when a very strong citizens’ voice has emerged against a TV programme, which was considered as unethical on the ground of violation of citizens’ rights to privacy.

A few citizens’ groups are planning to file petitions in the Supreme Court to have judicial review of the situation. As a result of this assertiveness, the concerned TV channel has finally decided to terminate the entire team of Maya Khan Show. Many have appreciated the decision of the management of SAMA TV. But, is it enough to have a few citizens’ groups, a few facebook pages, and a few blogs to ‘monitor the enormous electronic media’ in the country? The situation becomes more critical when the regulator appears to be completely ineffective in ensuring compliance of any sort of ‘code of ethics’ in the media.

It is needless to say that since liberalisation of airwaves in the country in 2002, media have played a pivotal role in informing the society, providing voices to the voiceless, raising issues of the marginalised segments, helping people in access to justice, and educating citizens about their rights. Lawyers’ movement, governmental ineffectiveness and inefficacies, financial scams like NICL and Hajj scam, missing persons issue, are a few of the issues which media have played a vital role to bring to the light.

However, it is also a fact that media act as double-edged sword. Camera and the microphone of television channels can be more dangerous than the weapons. In the past, media have been termed as a ‘weapon of mass deception.’ The vigilantism has made the media a ‘weapon of social destruction’ as it seemed to crossing the limits. Showing mutilated body parts of victims of terrorism and accidents, faces of rape victims, portraying alleged accused as a criminal, and sting operations — recording the proceedings with hidden cameras, etc. are a few of the examples of such violations. Maya’s programme has been considered as a direct attack on the right to privacy of the individuals.

Media claim that they exercise their right to information and expression. Right to information and expression are fundamental rights of citizens and media supposed to exercise these rights in the best interest of the citizens. However, the current media have huge tendency to violate citizens’ rights under the garb of right to information and expression. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), which is a regulatory authority to implement its ‘code of ethics,’ seems to be completely silent despite having a huge media-monitoring cell at PEMRA’s headquarters.

The sole purpose of the cell seems to monitor so-called ‘violation of media against the government or state agencies’ only. The regulator, ironically, has not paid required heed to a large number of complaints submitted by the citizens. Except issuing a show cause notice to the concerned TV channel, it has not uttered a single word on this infamous Maya’s vigilantism. The citizens are left at the mercy of the ‘double-edged sword’ without any protecting shield or escape rout.

The media is huge. There are more than 70 local satellite television channels and more than 130 local radio stations operating in the country. Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA) is a strong body of the electronic media owners in the country. The number of working journalists, according to the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalist (PFUJ), has gone beyond fifteen thousands.

Important to mention here that majority of these journalists are associated with the electronic media and have very limited work experience. Every single day, a new issue can emerge and can potentially — and actually — infringe the rights of individuals. Citizen groups, on the other hand, are very few and even these few have limited capacity to deal with the situation. (One should not over estimate their capacity after a successful campaign against Maya’s vigilantism.)

In this situation — where media have enormous presence, regulator is indifferent and ineffective, and citizens have limited capacity — how can one keep an eye on these enormous media and secure their rights. Moreover, who will see whether media exercise right to information and expression within the given parameters? Furthermore, who will judge whether media violate the rights of the citizens such as right to privacy? For an educated and assertive citizen, these questions would be relatively simple to answer but think about a person who is either semi-literate or illiterate and subject of media’s so-called right to information and have little idea about the infringement of his privacy! What about children, women, and other marginalised communities, which have already very limited voices in the society, and are subject to discrimination through a number of ways?

Mr. Nadeem Iqbal, a former reporter and executive coordinator of the Network for Consumer Protection, has raised a very pertinent question of rating and revenue of the channels. He mentioned that the rating of a programme and advertising revenue are making the producers and managers of the TV channels to do whatever is possible to ensure their pie. For a channel, revenue is the primary concern, he said, and the rest is least important. Mr. Iqbal lamented the situation and pointed out that the citizens have little idea about the overall media practices. “Like the definition of corruption, it is also becoming difficult to differentiate between ethical and unethical practices in media” he said. There is a need to initiate campaigns against such deceptive practices and citizens need to be vigilant about their rights, he emphasized.

While reflecting on the above questions Mr. Mazhar Arif, who is a veteran journalist and Executive Director of the Society for Alternative Media and Research (SAMAR), stressed the need of a massive media literacy campaign. “We have been trying to watch practices of media from citizens’ perspective and highlighting the infringement of rights of the citizens, Mr. Arif said. He also mentioned that the SAMAR has been educating the citizens about media through seminars, lectures and public meetings. However, there is a need to initiate sustained and comprehensive efforts with a broader scope and mandate in this regard.

As a result of a successful campaign of a few assertive citizens’ groups, the Maya’s programme is no more on the air. This successful campaign again reaffirms two fundamental claims: first, that concerted efforts even by a few can make a huge difference; and second, that without citizens’ assertiveness, no one will bother about their rights. But, success in this current issue does not mean that all is green now. Media is enormous and very well-organized. We, the citizens, are uninformed and un-organized.

We have a long way to go, particularly when media do not want to have any state control or influence on their operation and, unfortunately, the state is ineffective to ensure protection of rights of the citizens. It is then the sole responsibility of the vigilant citizenry to move forward and secure their rights both from the state and the market. All this is possible only when we have comprehensive media literacy and unanimity against the infringers of our rights.

Source: The News