The challenge of media freedom
By Syed Talat Hussain
There are various reasons for which the media is coming under increasing pressure from powerful groups, each pressing its own agenda, contracting the space for fair and balanced editorial judgment. The most obvious one is the issue of reach. Media, particularly news channels and now also private radio, are seen as platforms through which larger audience can be obtained in shorter time spans as compared with traditional and more restricted methods of message dissemination. An ordinary rally in Lahore or Karachi becomes national news when beamed across the nation. Imran Khan’s recent lament that the media does not cover his party events properly must be seen in the context of this ‘reach issue’. Obviously his party events, like any other party’s activity, have the support of the loyalists. So they are his target audience. Like everyone else in the field of politics, he wants to project the events and the activities of the party beyond his reach — and the media is the only platform to do it from. It is a valuable asset. You get ‘them’ on your side, and you command the realm.
The other issue is that of impact. The media can create and change perceptions. Used properly, it can be a master illusionist. Murderers and thugs can get a complete make-over when they are repeatedly introduced as ‘leaders’. Lies and deception can be paraded as service to democracy, and broad daylight plunder of resources can be hedged as ‘cost of building a strong democratic order’. These, and other such misleading statements that covered up crimes of the powerful, were spoken before as well. Indeed these attempts at sweetening poison have been the stock-in-trade of the practitioners of power politics since times immemorial. But the success of these tricks was limited; its impact was ephemeral.
With 24/7 news and infotainment outlets available, potentially, there are round-the-clock and endless chances of recycling myths and peddling untruths. But the potential is not just for playing up the negative: genuine agendas for change can also be kept in circulation every day of every week of every month of every year, and then year after year with much impact. Again to quote Imran Khan’s example, his deep frustration is also a reflection of his realisation that he can really fast-track change only if he gets the ‘coverage’ of his choice.
Some of the wrong choices exercised by owners, editors, news editors and field journalists in this exceedingly demanding environment has compounded the pressure on the media. Some have chosen the easy way out — aligning themselves with this or that group or its ideology. Whether out of fear, or personal preference, news and content flows in the media market are adjusted according to margins of profitability or promised benefits. Supping with the devil is now kosher. Brazenly censoring one type of criticism and nurturing another kind, is done all the time, without any remorse and it is called “editorial adjustment”. This makes life for those who are ‘unaligned’ very difficult. They get marked as the real problem by the powerful groups who now think that the buying of media loyalties and selling of their agendas is a legitimate practice, and that no one is above this trade.
The media business and media profession have both become difficult. You can lose billions if your product is blocked or get blacked out. Conversely, you can thrive and prosper if you play ball. Similarly, speaking the truth can get you killed. Or you can find yourself on the street the day you try to assert your editorial judgment. These strains have become the new instrument of media control and manipulation that all of us need to be wary of. The job of keeping our editorial freedom intact and our integrity beyond reproach has just begun in all earnest.