The media and the plan
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, addressing the CPNE meeting in Lahore the other day, emphasised the need for the media to act in a responsible manner and stand united on national issues, particularly with regard to the implementation of the National Action Plan against terrorism. Conceding readily that an independent media was indispensible for the development of the country, he also advised the media to care more for the national good than ratings. One can hardly take issue with the observations made by the prime minister and the need for the media to realise its social responsibility.
A pluralistic and independent media is considered a bulwark of all human liberties and an essential and indispensable ingredient of democracy. The two in fact complement each other. This co-relation stems from the right of the people to choose their own representatives, and their right to know. Democracy, as defined by Abraham Lincoln, is “rule of the people, by the people, for the people”. As such it is the right of the people to know what their representatives are doing. How they come to know what they ought to know is through the media; an effective and acknowledged medium of mass communication. That adequately explains why freedom of expression is so necessary in a democracy.
The media as a fourth pillar of the state actually represents society and consequently owes it to society to behave in a responsible manner by maintaining its pluralistic hue, reporting events in their true perspective and also taking care of social, religious and cultural sensitivities as well as showing utmost respect for its ethical values. There is no concept of unbridled freedom of expression anywhere in the world. All the ethical and professional codes of conduct adopted by the international media representative bodies also invariably emphasise desirability and strict adherence to these basic principles of social responsibility.
Vice Chancellor of Chicago University Dr Robert Maynard Hutchison, who headed the Hutchison Commission formed in the US in 1942 to make recommendations on freedom of expression and the media’s obligations towards society – in the backdrop of growing calls by the American public for government intervention to check the indiscretions of the media and attempts by the media to avoid incisive government regulation – remarked that “freedom comes with responsibility”.
The report of the commission submitted in 1947 is regarded the Magna Carta of the modern concept of freedom of expression and media’s responsibilities towards society. It unequivocally emphasised the need for the media to provide an accurate, truthful and comprehensive account of events, act as a forum for exchange of comment and criticism, present and clarify goals and values of society and make sure that it projects a representative picture of the constituent groups in society. The report also reiterated the fact that society and public have a right to expect high standards of performance, and that as such intervention can be justified to secure public good.
Judged on the touchstone of the foregoing, the media landscape in Pakistan presents a very dismal picture. While it zealously tends to maintain and protect its freedom, it is not showing the sort of social responsibility that should accompany with the freedom of expression. The media, like the political polarisation in the country, is also divided into anti-government, pro-government, and rightist groups with each entity trying to impose its own skewed and partisan views on national issues and even resorting to smear campaigns against supposed rivals. Consequently truth and social responsibility have become casualties of this rampant media culture.
This sorry state of affairs is also attributable to the mushroom growth of TV channels and their irrepressible propensity to improve their ratings. Another sordid aspect of this phenomenon is that in some cases the TV channels are owned and run by people with no journalistic background. And in all probability the majority of the hosts of different programmes on these channels also have had no formal professional training and are learning the art through indiscretions stemming from lack of knowledge of professional ethics. Journalism, unlike other professions, requires sound knowledge of the currents and cross-currents within a society and a comprehensive awareness about ethical norms that help with sound professional decisions. It is too serious an undertaking to be left to novices.
In view of the importance of ethics in journalism, the countries of the developed world and even a number of developing countries have established training institutions for journalists where greater emphasis is laid on professional and ethical values and internationally accepted norms of media conduct. Perhaps it would also be advisable for the government to take the initiative and establish training institutions for mediapersons and make it compulsory for fresh entrants to the profession as well those already working in media organisations to learn about their professional responsibilities, and the ethical, cultural and religious sensitivities within society.
The prime minister also urged the media to evolve a code of conduct for itself which the government would support ungrudgingly. This is the age of self-regulation of media and more than fifty countries of the world, mostly European, have established press councils to deal with matters pertaining to breach of professional codes and public complaints about the media. These bodies are run and financed entirely by media organisations and those from the field of journalism.
Apart from dealing with public complaints, press councils also arrange for training and capacity building of the journalists. Media organisations in Pakistan must take the responsibility of regulating the media themselves as pointed out by the prime minister and as is practised in other countries. That would not only help establish healthy government-media relations but would also eliminate undesirable practices and indiscretions from journalism.
There is no denying the fact that the PML-N government has shown unswerving commitment to the freedom of the media and is intensely aware of the role the media can play in pulling the country out of the quagmire it is stuck in because of the phenomenon of terrorism. The appeal by the prime minister to the media for help in the implementation of the National Action Plan is beyond any reproach. Terrorism poses a threat to the integrity and security of the country and needs to be faced and tackled through a collective effort by society and all the state institutions including the media. The role of the media is undoubtedly of paramount importance in the current scenario. If we look at the history of countries like Italy and Sri Lanka, which were also victims of terrorism and armed insurgencies, it would transpire that the media played a very pivotal role in isolating terrorist outfits, developing a counter-narrative to terrorist ideologies and building national unity to face anti-state elements.
Our National Action Plan against terrorism also enjoys national consensus and the backing of all the stakeholders in the security and integrity of the country. It is, therefore, the duty of the media to lend its support to this national cause by creating a proper understanding of the objectives of the NAP among the masses as well as to persist with its efforts to discredit terrorist outfits, their supporters and those who preach hate.
The writer is a freelance contributor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org