Reviving ethical journalism
Perhaps never before was such an urgency of a “New Media Order” (NMO), not merely because of public criticism but because a strong section within the media now strongly feels that ‘ethical journalism’ has become a major casualty, particularly after the rise of the electronic media.
But the question is what kind of NMO is required today? Should it be based on freedom with responsibility? We have already entered into a dangerous terrain where media practitioners are threatened by their own colleagues. Can we allow media to spread hatred and violate its code of ethics.
In view of the above, the NMO should be based on freedom, responsibility, objectivity, professionalism, ethics, transparency and better working conditions.
Some 64 years back, our seniors warned us about the possible consequences of corrupt practices when they evolved a ‘code of conduct’ of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ). These are still relevant in today’s world of media.
(1) A member should do nothing that would bring discredit to himself, his union, his newspaper or his profession.
(2) Whether publication or suppression, the acceptance of the bribe by a journalist is one of the gravest professional offenses.
(3) Freedom in the honest collection of news facts and the right of fair comment and criticism, are principles which every journalist should defend.
(4) No member should seek promotion or seek to obtain the position of another journalist by unfair means.
(5) Every journalist should treat subordinates as considerably as he would desire to be treated by his superiors.
(6) In obtaining news or pictures, reporters, photographers/cameramen should do nothing that cause pain or humiliation to innocent, bereaved or otherwise distressed persons.
(7) A journalist should fully realise his/her responsibility for everything he sends. He should keep professional secrets and respect all necessary confidence regarding sources and information as well as private documents.
(8) Every journalist should keep in mind the danger of libel, contempt of court and copyright. In reports of law and court proceedings it is necessary to observe and practice the rule of fair play to the parties.
Now, I leave it to journalists to judge how far they follow these codes. These are some of the basic ethics, which every journalist should follow.
There is also a need of a “New Declaration Policy” in the light of several thousand declarations acquired and often used only to acquire government advertisements. It should not be in the government control but should have an independent committee comprising editors, senior journalists and a retired judge.
Objectivity, even if you are not always neutral, and professionalism with editorial control rest with the editor or director news. Better working conditions should prevail, starting from the recruitment to the issuance of appointment letter, transparency in the issuance of TV license and a comprehensive code of conduct, agreed upon by all the media stakeholders including owners of print and electronic media, professional editors and working journalists.
The NMO should also make the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) an independent and autonomous body free from the government control, but must be made answerable to the parliament. Every media house, both print and electronic, must have an independent ombudsman, who should not have any conflict of interest and the position should be honorary.
Similarly, the government control over advertisements must also be abolished. This may bring an end to major corruption in the Ministry of Information. Similarly, there is no need for “Press Card” of Press Information Department (PID) or Provincial Information Department. In the presence of the press card issued by the relevant newspaper offices and TV channels, there is no need for official cards.
There is also a need of a “New Declaration Policy” in the light of several thousand declarations acquired and often used only to acquire government advertisements. It should not be in the government control but should have an independent committee comprising professional editors, senior journalists and a retired judge.
Even if the government is given representation, it should be as ‘ex officio’ with a voting right, whether in the PEMRA or in the Media Complaints Commission. Media Commission Report prepared by Retired Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid and former information minister Javed Jabbar can be used as a starting point.
Media houses, journalists unions, associations and press clubs do have their codes in the Constitution, but these are hardly enforced. The recent split in the PFUJ, second since 1978, had further damaged the struggle for more responsible freedom while owners, broadcasters and editors’ bodies are more concerned about their revenues.
The use of “Disclaimer” means a media house is not taking the responsibility for a particular show. It should only be used if the concerned anchor is not enrolled with the concerned tv channel. But, there should be an SOP in this case as well. Can any anchor be allowed to do whatever he or she wants to? Perhaps not. Where there is a possibility of litigation, the head of the channel, programme head and the anchor concerned are held responsible.
I wonder why Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA) had suspended the membership of Geo merely on the basis of an interview of minister for defense without even asking for evidence. For the first time, the struggle for media freedom seems difficult because one media group wants freedom for itself but ban for the other.
It is also for the first time that cable operators have become more powerful than the government. The cable operators, however, complained that they had been harassed by PEMRA and intelligence agencies in the case of Geo and ARY. Even the judiciary failed in getting its orders implemented. It is also for the first time in Pakistan’s media history that so many cases had been filed against channels in just 90 days. Interestingly, none of these cases were filed by the state.
Successive governments in the last few years had constituted committees, the latest being the one headed by Irfan Siddiqui, prime minister’s advisor on political affairs. The National Assembly and Senate have their own committees. The APNS, CPNE, PBA and PFUJ, representative bodies of the media stakeholders, also exist, but none of them was able to check the rising “unethical practices” in the profession. The Press Council of Pakistan (PCP), which should have been the forum to address all these issues as it comprises leaders from APNS, CPNE and PFUJ, failed to come up to the expectation, particularly in making the media accountable.
Compared with other three state pillars — legislature, executive and judiciary — the press, regarded as the fourth pillar, perhaps played the most vital role in strengthening democratic institutions in the country. Though the media exposed the wrongdoings of rulers, in the process it forgot its own code of ethics.
Pakistan was ruled by the army for 34 years out of 66 years since independence, but the people’s love for democracy and politics is unmatched. The three pillars of the state often sided with dictators, but the fourth pillar — Press, led by working journalists — always backed democratic forces.
Successive rulers and establishment tried to suppress and corrupt the media, and they have finally succeeded to some extent. Journalists, owners and editors have all struggled for ‘free declaration’ policy for the publication of any newspaper or magazine. Earlier, it was in the control of the area’s deputy commissioner and home secretary. They also had the authority to cancel the declaration under Press and Publication Ordinance. There were many anti-press clauses in this Ordinance, which were used by successive rulers to curb the press freedom.
After a long struggle, this ordinance was abolished and now any individual or group is free to get the declaration by simply writing a letter to the area magistrate, who gives the permission without any inquiry.
Pakistani media has come a long way to achieve ‘Freedom of the Press’ and its struggle is unmatched in the world, particularly in this region. Today, we have the most vocal and vibrant media, which has exposed many wrongdoings of the rulers, powerful individuals and institutions. It is time to get more ‘ethical’ through the New Media Order.