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Pakistan media needs for a code of professional ethics

by I A Rehman, 22 March 2009

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The News

Balance or power

The critical issue is whether media is being hailed for efficiency or being complimented for partisanship?

By I. A. Rehman

The media, specially its electronic component, has received enthusiastic applause for its contribution to the success of the campaign for the restoration of judges. In particular, the media coverage of the Long March on March 15 has been unreservedly acclaimed. All this is honey to the media people’s ears.

Only incorrigible cynics will dismiss this praise as undeserved. But when it is said that the media played the leading role in turning the Long March into an all-conquering force, the media will do well by itself to appraise its performance. The critical issue it has to ask itself is whether it is being hailed for efficiency in discharging its duties or whether it is being complimented for partisanship.

The media’s conduct in any crisis situation can take a variety of forms. It can be inefficient and non-partisan, or inefficient and partisan, or efficient and partisan, or efficient and non-partisan. The Pakistani readers/audiences are aware of all these forms of media performance. While, theoretically, it is possible to advance efficiency without partisanship as the ideal for a responsible media, adherence to this ideal becomes difficult in a sharply polarised society. Still, media cannot afford to forget that partisanship can sometimes obliterate the distinction between truth and concoction.

It seems, therefore, necessary that Pakistan’s media community should adopt the international practice of defining standards that it shall always strive to attain. The need for a code of professional ethics has been under discussion in media circles for quite some time. The recent events have underlined the necessity of expeditiously completing this task.

The Pakistan media has almost always been the victim of excesses by governments, democratic as well as dictatorial, though the former cannot be as highhanded as the latter. (The difference between the two, that should have a bearing on the media’s attitude to the two forms of governance, can be realised by comparing the Musharraf regime’s ban on TV live coverage and success in throttling Geo for several months and the present government’s pathetic attempts to contain Geo News.) As a result, the media has developed a persecution syndrome that has bred an exaggerated feeling of self-righteousness on the one hand, and an aversion to self-criticism on the other hand. Neither can be defended all the time, and the present appears to be a good opportunity for the media to do some soul-searching.

All over the world the dog-bites-man stories are dismissed as hack-work for apprentices while those entitled to bylines in bold letters are stirred only by the scent of a man-bites-dog story. The more enterprising ones do not hesitate, especially in countries such as Pakistan where electronic media is in its adolescence, to conjure up improbable events and developments.

In these countries statements issued all the time by state functionaries, political parties/groups, civil society organisations and eminent individuals are traded as news and views worth reporting. Not all of these people and associations owe their status as experts to their own accomplishments. Quite a few of them owe their position to their availability to media anchors and the latter’s somewhat arbitrary decision to treat their words as reportable. In such cases the media is not content to report an event as it would appear to a neutral observer, it determines how that event should be seen by anyone.

While dealing with statements voluntarily made the media is not bound to accommodate all of them uniformly; it exercises its discretion to indicate the status of a statement by the choice of its display and the column-length allotted to it. The media people compromise their editorial prerogative when they ask all kinds of people to give their views on anything and everything under the sun. In such situations the media could invite criticism for manufacturing opinion, which is not the same thing as moulding of the public opinion. The latter exercise only involves marshalling of facts and their interpretation and leaving the conclusion to the people. The media leaders may well ask themselves whether they help the people form their opinions or whether they pass on fully formulated opinions that their audiences should adopt forthwith.

There is considerable confusion as to what is meant by public. There is a tendency among newspaper and TV reporters to hold that the public means only the citizens living in their neighbourhood or passing through it. Quite often the population of villages and urban slums is not elevated to the status of the public.

Similarly, conclusions are sometimes based on partial interviews. For instance, the reaction of a person participating in the Long March could not be taken as the public response to the Long March call because he had made his position clear by joining the procession. A complete assessment demanded inclusion of views of those who did not join the march. Half-truths are often as misleading as falsehood.

Some time ago, criticism of TV anchors who prematurely became experts on all possible issues degenerated into a barren name-calling contest. The grievance against verdicts pronounced on complex issues by poorly informed persons is not unfounded. Nobody should have expected otherwise in a situation created by the obvious failure of plans for human and skill development of communicators to match the exponential explosion of the media facilities. No attempt to muzzle the youthful media persons will be justified as wise or realistic. All human beings, especially politicians and media people, are liable to lose balance after tasting power and both need professional training and some basic lessons in achieving greatness through humility.

During the recent happenings one sometimes came across references in the press as well as on the TV to the need for guarantees from Double A (Army and America). Everybody knows the bitter facts about the Pakistan state. The references to these As were often made in a manner implying approval of their intervention in national politics. This could mean legitimising such interventions in the eyes of the ordinary citizens. No media person indulging in obsequiousness to the traditional agents of extra-constitutional interventions in Pakistan’s affairs can in the same breath swear fidelity to democracy.

All these matters can begin to be resolved through a code of ethics based on a broadest possible consensus among all parties concerned. A major stumbling block barring progress in this direction has been the inability of the major stakeholders to see justice and fair play beyond their own concerns or interests. The state conceives of a code of ethics as a means to tame the media in its own favour. The codes incorporated in the Press Council Ordinance and the Pemra laws are glaring examples. The state wants a media that should not only be its slave but should also increase the people’s servility to its factotums. The code drafted by the broadcasters suffered from unnecessary deference to the authorities’ coarse habits. The working journalists feel no party is giving their views due weight or proper representation on the implementing bodies.

A time has come when media proprietors, editors/professional controllers and working journalists should sit down together and prepare a comprehensive code. Such a code may put less emphasis on don’ts than on the positive features of a free and responsible media, such as truthfulness, balanced coverage of events, separation of editorial comment from objective reporting, and transparency about ideological/political affiliations. No harm in espousing a political party’s/government’s/association’s cause provided a statement about such alignment is on record and partisan requirements are not presented as national imperatives. No small task in a country where the most anti-people operations are defended as dictates of national interest.