Special to Times of Oman
When the 'revolution' was being televised back in 2007 that eventually led to the ouster of strongman General Pervez Musharraf and established the electronic media as a powerful new stakeholder, few could have seen the unravelling coming. That the wounds are self-inflicted make the actions seem almost surreal!
The crisis of credibility that engulfs the media in Pakistan today — recriminations against, discrediting of, and catcalling at business competitors by rival media groups, as well as immense pressure on some media groups by state and non-state actors — is partly a result of breach of laws and constitutional obligations.
But mostly, it is an outcome of extravagant liberty taken with a slew of codes of ethics and conduct drafted by various stakeholders of the industry itself but mostly respected in breach than compliance.
While a code of ethics aims to promote thematic focus and professional standards, a code of conduct emphasises responsibilities that seek to deter professional violations.
Where does Pakistani media stand in terms of self-commitment to professional excellence as articulated in codes of ethics and conduct? It is a complex situation as a quick glance at the increasingly discredited and, at times, farcical media shows.
At the apex of the media sector are separate regulators — Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) for private broadcasters (radio and TV), the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting for state broadcasters, the state authorities (federal and provincial) for print media, and the Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA) for telecom and Internet communications.
They all have different sets of suggested codes (not all have specific codes of ethics and conduct though). And because they were all formed at various intervals over the decades, their emphases dwell more on don'ts than do's, and more on the concerns of the authorities of the times than universal principles and professional standards.
At the base of the media sector are two types of media actors — the media owners and media practitioners. Both have strong representative associations espousing specified missions and objectives.
So, if the Pakistani media sector is awash with a plethora of codes of ethics, why is there a paradoxical increase in ethical and professional violations, including defamation, privacy breaches, 'accusation'/'allegation' journalism, internecine media slander and libel, negative coverage of certain minorities, hate speech, exaggerated patriotism and religiosity, caricaturisation of democracy, etc.? What happened to the ideals of accuracy, fairness, and balance that underpins news and current affairs? There are three main reasons why this is so.
• The fast-paced evolution of the media in Pakistan over the past decade that has increased its size manifold quickly rendered the regulatory regime irrelevant as convergence in technologies changed media dynamics and most attendant rules of the game (such as real-time news, ratings war, emergence of opinion and analysis shows and mobile and superfast Internet). The pacey, pulsing nature of news generation, processing and dissemination has blurred the lines between fact and opinion.
• The transition from military rule to democratic rule in 2008 and then political-democratic transition in 2013; rise in terrorism, sectarianism, nationalism and religious extremism; and in recent weeks and months the overt intimidation of media by state security agencies directly and through proxies, has injected a great deal of pressure on media houses and journalists. Over one hundred journalists and media workers have been killed in the past decade, reflecting the scale of impunity they face. Resultantly, there have been compromises on journalistic principles, ethics, and conduct of the media as competing coercive agendas against public interest gained ascendancy over the polity.
• Quick induction of about 16,000 persons as journalists to service dozens of 24/7 current affairs channels and more than 100 radio stations doing news, without any formal qualifications or prior experience resulted in the inevitable compromise over professional standards of news and current affairs. This has been compounded by a dogged refusal by media houses to invest in human resource development and journalistic excellence.
One workable solution that addresses all the key challenges described above is the Media Complaints Commission proposed by veteran columnist Irfan Siddiqui as head of a committee established by the Prime Minister to engage and facilitate media to come up with its own set of unified/consensus code of ethics as well as a media complaints and redressal mechanism that pre-empts crises of credibility and serious professional violations that have emerged in the last few weeks.
The author is a senior journalist based in Islamabad. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.