Given the context in which it has come, it is a case of better late than never: following the directives of the Supreme Court, on Thursday the Ministry of Information, Broadcasting and Heritage issued the Electronic Media (Programmes and Advertisements) Code of Conduct, 2015.
The first code of conduct regulating the field was produced in 2002. Yet despite the formulation of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority Rules 2009, it has felt as though media organisations and their employees have run rings around lumbering efforts to operate within the rules — and in some case, even the norms of common decency.
Lapses and deviations from the guidelines have become distressingly common, from allegations and unsubstantiated ‘facts’ becoming regular features of discussion, to live coverage of hostage situations which put the law enforcers’ operation in jeopardy, the bandying about of hate speech, and even media crews intruding into hospital wards or carrying out ‘raids’ on citizens’ homes or places of work.
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The last is referred to in the 2015 code as “door stepping” and it, along with a raft of other malpractices, has been defined and restricted / barred under the new code of conduct.
Unsurprisingly, substantial sections are devoted to explaining what, for example, constitutes hate speech, the glorification of terrorism and the promotion of taking up arms against the state. Yet encouragingly, the code goes beyond these most pressing problems and also addresses other, less glaring malpractices, such as in advertising.
There are sections relating to the protection of minors, and a right of response for persons against whom an allegation has been made. Also of value is the balancing act that has been attempted by including, at appropriate places, “unless in overriding public interest” riders.
As ever, though, there are problems which will require further work, one of them being the “sweeping nature” of the guidelines against which the Committee to Protect Journalists has protested. Consider, for example, the section that declares that nothing must be aired that is against Islamic values or the ideology of Pakistan, or that is obscene; the country is all too aware of instances where such language has been invoked to limit debate and dissent.
It would have been far better had the Pakistan Broadcasters Association itself come up with a code. Now, the greatest challenge lies in implementation. Urgently needed is a media monitoring committee that is acceptable to all, independent of the government and resistant to any efforts to subvert its will through political manoeuvring.
It should not be forgotten, after all, that while some of the malpractices identified by the 2015 code were also present in the 2009 rules, the latter went largely ignored. Indeed, first and foremost, it is the media houses themselves that need to revisit the ethics of their field, with the long-term aim being the parliamentary oversight of media regulation.
Published in Dawn, August 25th, 2015