Media ethics in Pakistan -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Media ethics in Pakistan

Talha Jalal

The media in Pakistan is fast turning into a self-serving (rather than public-serving) industry — an industry that glorifies itself, is self-righteous and, most discomforting of all, has a huge persecution complex

Until 2002, the only television channels that operated in Pakistan were the state-run PTV and a couple of its specialised news and entertainment subsidiaries. Eight years later, there is a plethora of channels, mostly operated by already established private news syndicates. Unlike Pakistan’s political landscape, the media in Pakistan has grown to become diverse and free over the years. News channels range from those that are immensely popular to less prominent, and regional channels that broadcast in regional languages.

But now, all the happy talk about the media has started seeming a bit apathetic. This unchecked public service has made it too easy to manipulate the illiterate masses. Today, prominent news channels have rather dangerously attained the ability to sway public opinion (with their sometimes heavily opinionated broadcasting). From airing uncensored violence, showing political ‘cat fightsÂ’ to calling government functionaries the ‘Zardari mafia’, media ethics have often been kept at bay with the excuse of freedom of expression.

While media freedom is still much celebrated in Pakistan and acts as the self-proclaimed saviour of the Pakistani people, a combination of unprofessional news channels, political debates-cum-public-bashing-of-politicians and public brainwashing through airing loaded caricatures that call for moral righteousness, all point to the fact that the media industry in Pakistan is still very juvenile. Perhaps eight years is not long enough to attain maturity and professionalism. The media in Pakistan is fast turning into a self-serving (rather than public-serving) industry – an industry that glorifies itself, is self-righteous and, most discomforting of all, has a huge persecution complex.

On the other hand, in the absence of a reasonable film industry and as a result of a media-induced obsession with politics, news anchors and political commentators have become celebrities for the young and old alike. With startled faces, populaces stick to their TV sets every evening to watch political talk shows that have become the only entertainment for the recreation-starved masses.

When General Musharraf opened up the media sector for private syndicates in 2002, issues that would arise as a result of this privatisation were not taken into account. With the advent of the private media in Pakistan came an unprecedented freedom of expression and an ever-increasing awareness among the public. But along with this amassing of news channels also came corporate interests and increasingly compromised media ethics. While the largely illiterate masses were astounded at the liberal and freethinking programmes on the freshly inaugurated television channels, the government and the media stake holders both ignored the need for a self-imposed check on the media and its long-term role in Pakistani society. This ignorance, which was earlier caused by the excitement of the newfound freedom of expression and then became an excuse for revenue generation, is now causing many problems, the effects of which will be harmful in the long run.

As a result of the commodification of news and a disregard for ethical reporting, news content of both the electronic and print media has suffered gravely. Studies have concluded that the content of Pakistani newspapers, both in Urdu and English, is extremely skewed towards politics, terrorism and government/judiciary-related news. This comes at the cost of ignoring other pressing social issues.

This content disparity in the print media is replicated in the electronic media as well. It is perhaps quite pertinent to ask the following question: why is the national media only filled with flashy stories about terrorism, politics, crime and inflation? Social problems, problems of education and health, whose solutions are much less remote than that of terrorism and political debacles, hardly ever make headlines.

A fundamental problem with Pakistani media remains the treatment of news as a commodity rather than a public good. This rather overly capitalist attitude leads journalists to use fancy language, metaphors, proverbs and emotionally charged arguments that unnecessarily distort facts. This practice of treating media content as a commodity seems to have led journalists into losing their objectivity. Moreover, this attitude has pushed journalists to report heavily on stories containing shock value or stories that are reaction-oriented.

There should, however, be no doubt that deciding what to report on should only be the prerogative of journalists and media stakeholders. These choices cannot be imposed upon the media by a regulatory authority or the government in general. These, clearly, are questions of media ethics and they can only be addressed by a professional uplifting of reporting standards and a collective adoption of ethical and socially productive policies by media stakeholders in Pakistan.

While commenting on established media practices, noted author Arundhati Roy wrote that contemporary media is a “crisis-driven media” whose cash turnover is dependent on crisis turnover. Keeping this in view, it is easy to understand the current scenario in Pakistan and also, to a large extent, elsewhere in the world. Professionally committed journalists and advocates of media ethics stress that media corporations should resort to a turnover that is driven by ethical reporting. This is in striking contrast to the business strategy that is presently running the media industry. It is a reality that both the electronic and print media in Pakistan have inadvertently turned into crisis mongers. A crisis-driven media is unethical.

Media stakeholders in Pakistan collectively need to reassess the overarching role of the media in Pakistani society and come up with a collective ethics and compliance code for journalists and the print and electronic media. Such measures will not only bring a positive change to Pakistani society but also strengthen the media itself and bring more institutional credibility.

Issues that are more important for society and have to deal with the masses such as water shortages, load shedding, public health, infrastructure, wages, poverty, etc, should be pursued by the media to a point where a solution is eventually reached. Flashing stories that are not pursued to the end tend to produce no outcome in the long run. In a country where a plane crash covers up the fake degrees issue, a shoe-throwing incident puts coverage of country-wide flooding on the back burner and a bomb blast covers up everything else, there is a dire need to set our priorities and realise how crucial the media’s social responsibility is.

The writer is a research assistant at the Development Policy Research Centre, Pakistan and is also associated with the Centre for International Media Ethics. He can be reached at
Source: Daily Times