WHERE the chief election commissioner’s appointment fuelled optimism about the conduct of the next election, the discourse in the electronic media leaves a lot to be desired.
First, the consensus which put Justice Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim in office and now the quality of interaction between his office and the political parties as evidenced in media reports are all signs that the next polls will be relatively free from disputes and hence produce widely acceptable results.
Most political parties have had multiple meetings with the CEC to continue their discussions on their respective positions about the conduct of free and fair polls, particularly their representations on the role of the administrative machinery including the police.
There may still be a raft of unresolved issues from verification of electoral lists in some areas to the final decision about who will be in charge of security on polling day — whether it’ll be the police backed up by the paramilitary Rangers or the army entrusted with the responsibility.
With this level of detail being worked out between the parties and the Election Commission on the one hand and fine-tuning of strategies by various contestants on the other, the emerging picture leads one to believe that the will of the people will manifest itself at the electoral box better than before.
However, one essential element in the run-up to any election is missing. A dispassionate, impartial and open debate on the performance of the incumbents whether at the centre or the provinces and the programme of the contenders for power at the next election.
A few colleagues in the electronic media who constantly focus on issues and host balanced discussions represent exceptions.
A majority of programmes continue to appear as if their solitary aim is to appeal to the audience’s basest instincts. For example, provoking politicians into a heated discussion to a point where two (occasionally three) shout over each other, making complete fools of themselves watched by the ‘successful’ anchor in his expensive suit who fails to suppress his glee while feigning helplessness.
Of course, when it is time for the ‘commercial break’ the anchor is helpless no more. There is no ambiguity, as it is established quickly and firmly who is in charge. Once the break ends, it is more of the same. If this was the only issue one could perhaps stay quiet. But some channel hosts — someone I know calls them ‘anarchy anchors’ — are treading a dangerous path.
Look at the recent judgement of the Lahore High Court in which the government has been asked to start work on the Kalabagh dam project without further delay.
The leadership of PML-N, the party which has the most to lose in Punjab which overwhelmingly supports the project, has given a measured response with Nawaz Sharif saying national consensus was a prerequisite, however strong Punjab’s case to build.
Accountable to none other than the revenue-influencing ratings, some major anchors have aggressively pushed a divisive parochial line in their discussions. In the process, they have cast the net far and wide to find vocal and rabid pro-dam PML-N members to play along.
The ruling notwithstanding, even the dam proposal’s most vehement backers will tell you that they see no chance it will go beyond where it is at this stage. Neither is it likely to move, if at all, till after the polls when a new dispensation is in place.
So, what’s the point in fanning parochial sentiments in the run-up to the elections? Also, in this case it isn’t clear if the PML-N is being naughty or is not in control as a member takes a hard line publicly against the official stance.
The parties themselves need to ensure they clear those members for media discussions who have the maturity and composure to present the best face of the politician and elected political system to the audience rather than a broken-nosed bruiser’s.
This is important because our history tells us that somehow military rulers who tear up the constitution, every statute book and code of conduct are rarely questioned until there’s realisation they have been in the saddle for a decade. Similar courtesy is rarely extended to elected public officials.
Pakistani TV channels have had a representative organisation for their collective commercial interest for a number of years but have failed to evolve a code of conduct acceptable to all members.
It would be interesting to look at Britain’s example where the electronic media is regulated but, as the scandal involving widespread (and illegal) phone-hacking of innumerable individuals by tabloid newspapers demonstrated, the print media wasn’t, and it created serious issues for them.
The report of the Leveson inquiry set up to look into the scandal underlined the need for press regulation. A committee of senior newspaper editors is drawing up the regulation as we speak.
Despite widespread calls for it to legislate, the government set up the committee as it was reluctant to be seen as curtailing press freedom by its own hand. But, it is expected, once ‘self-regulation’ is in place it’ll be given teeth by parliament through legislation.
When the inquiry was starting Lord Justice Leveson said the task before him was to ascertain who’ll “guard the guardians”?
He has tried hard to answer the question in his 2,000-page report. Now the editors are looking at a process which is robust yet doesn’t curtail press freedom.
Our challenge is greater. Here the quantity of information on the mass-reach electronic media far outstrips its quality.
Approaching an election where informed decisions need to be taken by the electorate, the quality and integrity of content is imperative. Regulation helps in this.
But governments can’t be trusted with this task as by definition it isn’t in their interest to facilitate free flows of information. Ergo, the guardians of the nation’s democratic institutions, morals and ethics will have to step up to the plate themselves or a ‘force for good’ could become a source of anarchy. Will they?
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.