There used to be a certain reserve around the business of news. Whether great journalism or mere propaganda, the reports in a newspaper were seldom hysterical. Of course, that changed when more Urdu newspapers started competing with each other – the emotive headlines are still remembered by many – but the text of the news report would be mostly straightforward.
In the last decade or so, cable news television came into its own in Pakistan. But as more and more channels started and competition intensified, so did emotions and hysterics. We have had anchors abuse on air, flail around their arms, beat their chests, bully the guests, till the guests decided to do the same. Now many news programmes and talk shows are watched or avoided, depending on what kind of day you’ve had, because of the anchor’s propensity to sit on the pulpit and berate everyone, and the guests’ willingness to out-shout the opponent’s opinion. Of course, army and big business are mostly exempt from any loud criticism.
Recently we have seen established TV personalities/anchors take on each other on Twitter. They question each others’ credibility as well as raise concerns about who controls the opinions of their opponents. Well-known politicians have also jumped onto Twitter and made credibility allegations about critical journalists. Perhaps because Twitter can be handled while the user is sitting comfortably at home, most are wont to say stuff which they wouldn’t usually in a public forum. Their followers on Twitter, of course, egg them on, and they get egged – in more ways than one.
Media ethics, control, censorship, are not new concepts. But as media has become much larger and more prominent, especially with the expansion of electronic media over the last decade-and-a-half, these issues have become, if possible, more serious.
There have always been concerns about who controls the media and to what purpose; and issues of journalism ethics; and what is sometimes termed as yellow journalism.
Why does an issue become prominent suddenly to the point that every channel and anchor feels they have to do a programme on it and then the topic is dropped as suddenly by everyone. How can so many anchors, across so many channels, decide an issue to be important and then unimportant at the same time?
Remember Kerry-Lugar Bill? Everyone was crying hoarse about US interference in Pakistan’s sovereignty. Timing of the raising of the issue overlapped the time when the army was unhappy with certain clauses in the Kerry-Lugar Bill regarding more aid to civilian government and some conditionalities for civilian control of Pakistan’s affairs in general. As soon as these concerns were addressed by the US, the opposition to Kerry-Lugar was dropped suddenly, even though many other points raised by the media remained.
There have always been rumours that the establishment has certain anchors that share its opinions, or are even paid to carry certain opinions. Prominent appointments in the media – print and electronic – sometimes bring these rumours up as well. Also, editors often get calls from various departments within the establishment, political parties, and business groups for placing certain articles or for giving prominence to particular news or removing certain news item. Such interference is almost taken as a given. In fact, sadly, there are cases where some media representatives even relish the opportunity to favour ministers, bureaucrats and businessmen.
News media is quite narrowly owned in Pakistan, and a few groups, owned by specific families, have significant cross-media ownership. Do owner interests also shape what anchors present and what gets published in newspapers? For example, can newspapers, dependent on commercial advertisement, do stories on prominent industrial lobbies?
One relatively new media group has many sister retail and manufacturing concerns. Would journalists working in that group ever be able to write about competition or tax or quality issues regarding those concerns? Not likely.
In fact any of the items that are advertised on the electronic or print media, especially by big business, will never have any negative comments published about them – and we accept that as a given.
So what it really leaves us with to criticise is political parties – and that too a certain wide brush use of criticism of political parties.
The state has a responsibility to create the framework under which the media works and thrives, but since the state is not without interests of its own, and is not always working for freedom of expression and rights to ensure healthy democracy, it is better if the state regulatory structure is not intrusive and is as broad as possible.
The shenanigans of Pemra when it has tried to micro-manage the media are indicative of what the state should not be doing – closing channels, pressurising cable operators, withholding licenses, etc.
But then the question becomes how should optimal regulatory framework for media be developed, clearly the oligopolistic structure of the media itself cannot be sufficient as a self-policing mechanism for creating that optimal regulatory structure. The question really is, does the society at large, groups concerned with media activity, and other bodies of citizens, have a role in this?
Media ethics and freedom should not just be the concern of media producers but also of media users. After all, what appears in media, the stereotypes it develops or brings down, the information it gives or withholds, impacts all of us and at many levels. While all media practitioners and anchors are assumed to act in good faith, not all of them may be right or properly informed. Just because someone has a good turn of phrase does not mean that the information he or she is imparting is well-researched or accurate.
In recent times we have seen examples where pressure from concerned citizen groups, even though they were not organised as registered organisations, brought necessary pressure on some media groups when ethical norms had been breached: Maya Khan’s vigilantism, Mehr Bokhari’s horrific interview of Salmaan Taseer, publishing of sectarian article by an English newspaper, come to mind. The question is, are these groups enough? My submission is that they are not.
We need to seed organisations with the specific purpose and task of monitoring electronic and print-media activity on various heads. We need to follow the representations of gender, religion, minorities, workers; the quality of coverage as well as the extent of coverage. We need to have facts to show our media where it needs to balance itself.
Such work should not be done by working journalists, existing journalist organisations, media-owner organisations – and definitely not by the state. It has to be done by organisations that are free and independent and non-partisan. Too many times, we see a liberal bias or a conservative bias in the research done by many think-tanks.
We have to create more informed consumers of the media by monitoring newspapers, magazines, television, cable news television, and Internet. It is crucial because we are inundated with information and we have to challenge stereotypes, biased information, and inaccuracies that come helter-skelter in the media deluge. If they are not immediately and strongly opposed, biases and inaccuracies have an insidious way of becoming part of our “common” knowledge, confounding the existing confusion.
Every reporter, columnist, anchor, newspaper and channel can selectively take out a report or programme as an example to show their commitment to health, education, minorities problems, gender issues, and political bipartisanship. That won’t do. We need facts and numbers for that would help improve coverage of marginalised issues, show up the pressure of power groups, and give us a stronger and freer media.
The writer is a former editor of The News Lahore.