Media freedom revisited
The mushroom growth of the electronic media, since the advent of granting operating licences to private TV channels more than a decade ago, has offered the viewers a wide spectrum of news coverage, but also added to their woes by – at times – presenting uncorroborated news as fact.
The electronic media is an extremely powerful tool. In his book, “Media: The Second God”, Tony Schwartz, a television advertising specialist, states: “Godlike, the media can change the course of a war, bring down a president or a king, elevate the lowly and humiliate the proud, by directing the attention of millions on the same event and in the same manner.”
In view of its extraordinary clout, it is imperative that the media exercise responsibility in its coverage. Unfortunately, the Pakistani media sometimes indulges in spreading sensationalism, causing severe repercussions.
Take the example of an incident on July 24, 2013, when a TV channel aired the breaking news and repeatedly asserted that a PAF Mushshak aircraft has crashed in River Indus during a training mission and its crew is missing. Subsequently, the reporter updated that part of the crashed aircraft has been fished out. To further authenticate the account, DCO Swabi was quoted as the main source. The news spread like wildfire and falling prey to competition, the story was picked up almost by every TV channel without verification.
This had severe repercussions since the region is inhabited by about 700 pilots belonging to Pakistan Air Force and Army Aviation, who engage in conducting flight training and operational missions. The aviators have elderly parents, brothers, sisters, relatives, and friends in their native towns and villages as well as abroad. When such depressing news is released, without naming the crew members, the families and well wishers of every aviator fears the worst for their loved ones and the PAF and army air bases are inundated with frantic inquiries.
When the truth unfolded, it was discovered that the concerned TV channel had released unconfirmed news in its exuberance to be the first to break it whereas no air crash had occurred, while the rest of the TV channels blindly followed suit. The ISPR informed that an Army Aviation Mushshak aircraft flying in the area dropped its external fuel tank due to technical reasons. The dropped tank was later recovered by an army rescue team. The incident was misconstrued by the TV channel, which never bothered to even render an apology to its viewers, callously remaining oblivious to the anxiety created by its baseless report.
Unfortunately, in Pakistan, there is no precedence of suing the media for causing misery and despair to its viewers through its negligence or wilful misreporting. In the Occident, the media remains vigilant, objective, and watchful not only due to a sense of responsibility, but also through the deterrence of being sued for libel or disregard of ethical norms.
Take also the example of the gunman taking Islamabad hostage on August 15, 2013, for five hours, when the Islamabad Police and Interior Ministry appeared clueless, but the dismal performance of the law enforcement agencies is another story. The media was continuously providing a running commentary of the events; it even had a scuffle with the police, while trying to go beyond the prescribed limits.
The sad aspect is that in July 2007, during the Lal Masjid siege in Islamabad, the media had tried to become mediators, was communicating directly with the hostage takers, who being eloquent orators swayed public opinion in their favour and Pakistan is still paying the price through heightened terror attacks.
Apparently, no lessons were learnt and in this latest incident too some television channels, in a bid to take the lead, were communicating with the gunman and his wife confusing the issue. Because of the interest created, the general public started thronging the scene of the standoff, with their families to watch the tamasha (show) live, putting themselves in danger.
There is thus a dire need for the media to do some soul-searching and evolve a truly effective code of ethics, a modus operandi, where its basic function of informing the people about latest developments is not compromised, but remains within the boundaries of presenting confirmed news, sans sensationalising or whipping up emotions. The media must itself be accountable to its elected or appointed body and face penalties for the violation of laid down norms. In the absence of such legislation, we will continue to repeat the mistakes, continuing to agonise the viewers.
The writer is a former group captain of PAF, who also served as air and naval attaché at Riyadh. Currently, he is a columnist, analyst, and host of programme Defence and Diplomacy on PTV.