Breaking the news ethics
By Adnan Rehmat
If the media demands good governance from the government, it should have the wisdom and courage to lead by example by being responsible and impartial.
President Asif Zardari must hate newspapers and TV channels. He isn’t the first head of state to do so. Decades ago, American President Lyndon B Johnson, who incidentally visited Pakistan as vice-president in 1961, also used to get so much bad press that he once remarked in exasperation: “If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline is going to say: President can’t swim.”
The media’s alarming ability to get all sorts of people riled up over a possible non-event and bring to the fore their dark side is legendary. Last week it threatened literally to bring the house down in Pakistan, when a TV channel flashed a claim in the evening that the democratically elected government had decided to revoke the executive fiat of Prime Minister Gilani restoring the dozens of judges sacked by military ruler General Pervez Musharraf. The prime minister himself promptly denied it, as did a spokesperson of the president.
But the channel not only refused to be corrected, in the heat of competition other channels also joined in to push the unsubstantiated claims to a point where the Supreme Court — in full force of its 17 judges — convened in the middle of the night to save itself from a threat for which there is still no evidence. In the bargain, a controversial pre-emptive legal precedence has been set in the shape of a verdict (in the absence of a litigant or petition) that ’empowers’ the court to try the government for treason if it feels threatened enough and binds all law enforcement authorities (the hint being the military) to act in aid of the judges even if that means potentially toppling the government.
And it all started with a piece of ‘news’ based on ‘reliable’ sources making claims that still have no legs to stand on.
This example illustrates a key challenge facing the media in Pakistan today: in the race for sensation and in the heat of competition, where do you draw a line that makes the media accept full practical responsibility for its actions? The media may be acting on its mandate to be a watchdog of public interest — which includes holding the government accountable — but this mandate does not come unfettered. Who watches the watchdog when it crosses limits in its pursuit of ‘exclusives’ and ‘breaking news’ when in effect it might lead to actions disproportionate to its intended consequences, as we have discovered to the chagrin of all parties, including the media itself last week?
There are laws on the statute books that offer consequences of crossing the limits such as the defamation law and relevant cognizance in mainstream laws such as the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority. However, a major legal nightmare for various parties can be envisaged in the case of the government or the prime minister as litigant because they may have to take on a host of journalists and media groups, not just one. Such an action may be seen as a frontal attack on the media rather than a case of the aggrieved party seeking redress. In the current case, this action would be fraught with the danger of a miscarriage of justice as the judiciary — the vehicle for delivery of justice — is itself not just a party to the case but also a primary complainant.
In fact, the judiciary’s response to the news of the alleged government plan against the judges was astonishing in several ways. For one, it did not give equal weight to the news of the prime minister’s denial of any such alleged plan as it gave to the news that there reportedly was a plan. For another, it did not ask the media to put it in writing that their news sources were “reliable” and yet asked the prime minister to put his version in writing.
In this whole sorry affair while the judiciary and the government laid their grievances and responses on the table, the principal instigator — the media — still hasn’t. Not only this, the media has also failed to report on its own behaviour in a case where, for once, the media was in the story and not just the story in the media. The judiciary and the media are two of the four pillars of state but they have to be just as accountable as the parliament and the executive are expected to be. The media’s big challenge of filling space and time with news does not include the license to say anything without verification and sourcing.
TV in Pakistan has a real problem. They have no ‘Page Two’ and consequently every big story gets the same play and comes across to the viewer as a really big, scary one. This, however, does not devolve the media of the responsibility to be fair and accurate. Just like good governance makes a good government, a responsible media makes for reliable media and a restrained judiciary makes for assured justice. In addition, just like ministers, prime ministers and presidents are capable of making mistakes, so do journalists and judges, and everyone should accept this. It is sad to see, the media accusing the government of betrayal (on the independence of judiciary), the judges implying the government is flirting with treason and the government branding journalists as agents of foreign states.
Justice lies in admitting mistakes and redressing them. As for the government, so for the media. There are already courts of law and the court of public opinion that are continuously invoked against the government. To prevent the media in Pakistan from hurting itself and others, it is inevitable to set up a forum where mistakes can be addressed morally and professionally with peer review and with a view to correction.
There has been a law supporting a press council for donkey’s years to offer a filter where complaints against media can be entertained, but it has never been set up or accepted by the media sector itself, because it is currently rigged up in favour of the government’s domination in it. This needs to be swiftly corrected and a council formed. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists has already set up committees to review government and private complaints against the media. This needs to be broadened. Such a forum will not be unique to Pakistan — it exists in most countries that boast of free media. If the media demands good governance from the government, it should have the wisdom and courage to lead by example and institutionalise an emphasis on ethics. Free media is important to Pakistan’s progress, not free for all media.