Self-regulating the media
By: Basil Nabi Malik
Recently on a Pakistani television channel, the live conversion of a minority member to the folds of Islam was broadcast as a momentous victory for Muslims everywhere, notwithstanding the sense of insecurity that it may have caused in other minority members of Pakistan already struggling in an increasingly conservative and intolerant society. Further back, on a somewhat popular television programme, a contestant was asked as to what was the most daring activity that he had undertaken in his life. Without pause, he proudly stated that he had raped a girl, and then boasted about how courageous an act it was.
Pakistan has a variety of laws allowing regulation of events such as the one relayed above. Amongst other provisions, Sections 20 and 27 of the Pemra Ordinance 2002 attempt to regulate, in a limited fashion, the electronic media. And in complement thereof, the Pemra Rules, 2009, provide for a limited code of conduct for media broadcasters and cable TV operators restraining the electronic media from airing, amongst other programmes, any programme ‘against basic cultural values, morality and good manners’, or programmes which ‘glorify crime or criminals’.
Furthermore, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority Act, 1996, which has jurisdiction in relation to the blocking of online material, also has provisions allowing for censorship of websites, albeit arguably subject to due notice and an opportunity to be heard as per Section 6 of the PTA Act, 1996.
In addition to this, the Press Council of Pakistan Ordinance 2002 establishes a council to implement an ethical code for journalists in the print media. The ethical code mentioned in its schedule touches upon issues of verification, balanced reporting, privacy and conflicts of interest. However, the said code has been rarely followed due to the existence of a Press Council that has been non-functional for most of its existence, and its inapplicability to all media outlets.
As can be deciphered from the above, although the laws do appear to allow regulators to prohibit the printing/broadcasting of certain types of content, and do create mechanisms to at least partially address journalistic issues of ethics, the said laws have seemingly given way to a governmental policy of media self-regulation.
In realisation of the need for self-regulation, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, the Newspapers Editors’ Council of Pakistan, and the Committee of the Press have all individually introduced codes of conduct for its journalists. However, interestingly, the said codes are wholly inadequate and incomplete when considered singly. Whereas the code of PFUJ appears to concentrate more on protecting the journalist against excesses by an employer, the code of the Committee of the Press emphasises generic ethical guidelines as to defamation, verification, and conflicts.
The code of the Newspapers Editors’ Council of Pakistan refreshingly attempts to encourage print journalists to stay committed to their obligation to the public’s right to the truth; however, its biggest drawback is that it is limited in scope and applicability.
Hence, and unfortunately, no one code appears to be adequate to address and resolve the various ethical issues afflicting the print and electronic journalistic community. In order to effectively further self-regulation as opposed to undesirable and stricter governmental regulation, in addition to a consolidation of the above-mentioned codes, other aspects of the ethical paradigm must also be addressed.
Firstly, the media community must highlight the importance of verifying sources, whether anonymous or disclosed. The importance of this issue can be gauged from past incidences involving the consequences of a lack of verification. In January 2012, a reputed newspaper carried a story of an alleged former army man who had saved civilians from a suicide bombing. In return, his sons were subsequently picked up for ransom by the Taliban, and upon his inability to pay the amount, one was killed and cut up into pieces. To make matters worse, after releasing the second son for a hefty ransom, the Taliban had now kidnapped his daughter. The news piece carried the mobile number of the said individual for the purposes of collecting donations. It turned out later that the man was a con-artist, and the article had apparently resulted in many individuals transferring money into his account. Although just one of many such incidents, it is a clear indictment of the journalism of expedience and sensationalism at the expense of verification.
Furthermore, any proposed code must also discuss the issue of proportionality and balance in news coverage. The Shoaib-Sania wedding is a case in point, where excessive coverage of the wedding seemed quite disproportionate in comparison to other developments taking place in the country at the time, such as an insurgency in Balochistan or the Hazara riots. In addition to this, disproportionate media coverage of gory and sensational aspects of the news, at the expense of the actual and complete truth hidden behind the shocking images, is also another aspect of media ethics which needs to be addressed in a code of conduct.
It must also be considered as to whether the loyalties of the journalist lie with its corporation or to the public at large. The increase in news channels and agencies has increased competition for better ratings/subscriptions, which has doubled the pressure on journalists to conform to corporate objectives, perhaps even at the expense of seeking the truth. If nothing else, this is at least an impression gained from the recent controversy involving two media persons and also from the manner in which media outlets, in a race for breaking the news first, beam interviews of ministers who identify and name rape victims in clear disregard for societal norms and their safety.
Furthermore, other than the above, a proposed code should also instruct journalists on how to handle potential conflict between the desires of the corporation and the requirements of professional responsibility, protect the privacy of the public, the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ of investigative reporting, the responsibility of the media as a monitor of power, avoiding conflicts of interest, and other matters which, if left unaddressed, may strip journalists of the public’s trust and confidence.
With media personalities moving the Supreme Court for media accountability, it has become essential that a proper code of conduct be established for the regulation of an industry in charge of providing truth and information to the public. If the media community fails to do so, it may risk losing the confidence of the very public which relies on it for accurate information, and in turn, may incur the wrath of stricter governmental regulation impinging on the very idea of press freedom.