The media undoubtedly is the most important pillar of the state and there is almost a world-wide consensus on freedom of expression as an essential ingredient for protecting human liberties and development of the state as a vibrant entity. However freedom of expression does not mean unbridled liberty or a license to act like loose cannons. The exercise of the freedom of expression is contingent upon adherence to the recognized social and professional ethics. In other words freedom with responsibility is the name of the game.
The Social Responsibility Theory propounded by Hutchison in mid-twentieth century which is regarded as Magna Carte of modern journalism, recognized the imperative of a pluralistic media cognizant of and sensitive to the ethical and cultural norms of the society acting to disseminate nothing but truth to the masses. This theory also considered interventions by the government to discourage indiscretions and erratic behavior by the media, as a legitimate and justified action.
The introduction of the private sector in the field of electronic media and the accompanying freedom of expression is probably the best thing that has ever happened in this land of the pure. While it is heartening to see the media enjoying its freedom and guarding it zealously, it is equally disappointing to see the absence of the component of responsibility. The electronic channels in their mad rush for improving rating and outdoing their rivals pay no attention to have the reports of their correspondents duly corroborated or authenticated. A speculative and unauthentic news report aired by one channel becomes a subject of debate almost on all the channels throughout the day and the evening talk shows, with each channel trying to read too much between the lines in accordance with its own preconceived notions and policies of the media house that it represents. There is also a discernible tendency of syndicated journalism. The news stories of the electronic channels are then also picked up by the print media who give their own touch to them and consequently the truth becomes a casualty. This kind of behavior is contrary to the internationally recognized professional and ethical codes of conduct for the media as well as the code of ethics agreed between the government committee headed by Irfan Siddiqi and the Pakistan Broadcasting Association after protracted deliberations. It was agreed that in the talk shows no false, distorted or misleading information would be passed on to the public. That incidentally is also the first clause of the code of conduct for media drawn up by the International Federation of Journalists.
The latest example of this irresponsible behaviour is a news report regarding high level meeting held at the Prime Minister’s House on May 10 to review the security situation in the country and one-on-one meeting between Prime Minister and the COAS. Even though the one-on-one was still in progress, the electronic channels started reporting that the COAS had expressed concern over the current political situation in the country and suggested that the issue of Panama Leaks should be resolved at the earliest. The story was then reported by almost all the national daily newspapers. The Prime Minister House in its Press Release about the deliberations of the meeting said that issues pertaining to national security and operation Zarb-e-Azb were reviewed. In an obvious reference to the reports that were being run on the electronic channels, it advised the media to avoid speculation about un-related issues. This resort to passing on false information to the masses by the media is a blatant violation of the professional and ethical codes for the media.
On the last week end also a report in the media attributed a statement to the Prime Minister during his meeting with Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz at Jati Umra that they would not accept anyone’s dictation on TORs. This was contradicted by the government and reportedly the Principal Information Officer perforce had to write to the print media, news agencies and electronic channels requesting them to refrain from airing or publishing baseless news. He particularly observed that the correspondents of the TV channel and news agencies have made it a routine to file speculative and concocted stories when the Prime Minister visits his family on the weekends.
As far as electronic channels are concerned, frankly speaking It is quite an ordeal to watch the current affair programmes and talk shows, hosted by some uncouth and non-professional anchor persons——barring a few honourable exceptions—- yelling at the top of their shrilling voices at the panelists, trying to rub in their own partisan perceptions and getting involved in a debate with them instead of listening to their views on the questions put to them. Being aggressive in approach is adorable but descending into an insulting mode is absolutely non-professional and detestable. They also lack the ability of a professional moderator to control the flow of the arguments as is evident from their nod to the shouting matches among the participants, presenting a spectacle of the shindigs rather than serious forums to discuss national issues; so repulsive to the eyes and jarring to the ears.
A professional anchor person and host of such shows would always thoroughly brief the participants about the etiquettes of the discussion before coming on air and also curb his own inclinations to join the melee . Most of the anchor persons are inductees from the print media and are not well conversant with the professional culture of the electronic media and the art of conducting panel discussions or talk shows. Some even have not worked as journalists at all before landing into the arena. That probably is the reason that these shows look more like entertainment stuff than the forums for informative and educative debates. Proper professional training of the journalists working in the electronic channels, therefore, is absolutely necessary to achieve the growth of healthy journalism in the country and strict adherence to the agreed code of conduct. There is, therefore, an urgent need to establish training institutes for the journalists of the electronic media, especially the anchor persons, where they are made abreast of the media ethics and relevant laws as well as professional techniques and practices. These institutions can either be established by the government or by the collaborative efforts of the electronic channels themselves with adequate support of the government.
Nevertheless, despite all the foregoing observations, it is my conviction that the overall media landscape in the country, notwithstanding its imperfections, is very encouraging. Media and democracy are indispensable for each other. They reinforce each other. The media being a watch-dog against the government and a representative of the society is under social, legal and constitutional obligation to show utmost sense of responsibility. Freedom comes with responsibility and therefore the media needs to defend its independence through responsible behaviour.