THE Supreme Court’s probe into some reports about the Zainab rape-murder case has drawn attention to the havoc that the increasing reliance on disinformation has been causing in Pakistan. Any effort to identify the factors contributing to this unwelcome situation must begin with an examination of the government’s role in promoting the art of disinformation.
Everybody is aware of Pakistan being censured by international finance bodies for fudging its accounts. Nothing seems to have been done when the World Bank stopped accepting the statistics offered by Pakistan, except for swallowing the insult. Four years ago, the then finance minister was caught quoting the wrong growth figures and nothing could persuade him to recant.
The statements our representatives have been making at UN forums have embarrassed informed citizens more than once. Claims of reforms having been carried out and institutions being created have been made with disregard for the truth. Sometimes the government merely announces its intention to do something good and after some time the report-writers assume (wrongly) that what was intended must have been done.
Unfortunately, Pakistan falls among those countries that have not accepted the end of the censorship era and the rise of transparent governance as the foremost ideal of a civilised polity. Islamabad’s love of news management and its tendency to prefer secrecy to openness are well known. It still enjoys blocking foreign news channels. The Constitution requires the president and the governors to report each year to their relevant legislatures the steps that have been taken over the preceding year to implement the Principles of Policy, a requirement consistently ignored. The Rules of Business require each federal ministry to publish an annual performance report. The reports are published, it is said, but the people are denied access to them.
Pakistan falls among those countries that have not accepted the end of the censorship era.
The government dragged its feet for a decade to replace the freedom of information law with a mildly changed enactment. The provinces are not uniformly implementing their right to information laws. The Punjab government got so angry with its fairly efficient information commission that it has not reconstituted it, after the retirement of the first chairman and members.
Nobody can claim that the much-assailed system of press advice has been discontinued. Preventing information from reaching the people is considered one of the main functions of the government. A minister was relieved of his post for failing to stop the publication of a report.
The government was not content with developing its system of disinformation; it deemed it prudent to buy or co-opt newspersons to block information and thus strengthen the disinformation regime. And Gen Zia was not alone as a promoter of ‘envelope journalism’; he has had ignoble successors.
The result of putting so much premium on disinformation is that truthful news has became a commodity that can only be obtained illicitly on the black market. If a privileged information distributor told a newsperson that he could have a scoop for the asking the latter would not consider it necessary to check the correctness of the story before rushing to release it, and if he ran into trouble he might not be able to name his source.
For obvious reasons, the pressure is on newspersons to develop a code of conduct to avoid dealing in fake news and escape getting punished for it. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists has an excellent code that its members and office-bearers should read frequently. The organisations of broadcasters, proprietors and editions have their own codes and some have tried to write down more don’ts than the establishment might want. The best way to keep newspersons on the right path is to respect their right to information and freedom of expression both and trust them for following their own code, as no externally devised code is likely to work.
The problem with our TV channels is that they have multiplied at a fast rate on a rather narrow talent base. They do not have the resources to generate quality content needed to sustain 24/7 telecasts. There is not enough of positive activity in the country to fill the long hours of broadcast time. The audience has so thoroughly been hooked on sleazy stuff and tomfoolery in the name of political analysis that the good deeds done by some institutions and millions of honest workers and ordinary citizens do not sell and the morning transmissions are devoted to crime stories. Some of the owners find safety in staying on the right side of the establishment, or one part or another of it, while the others are scared of it. One feels like sympathising with anchorpersons who after disposing of their guests in their talk shows have to act as experts on other talk shows, and thus have their burden doubled.
In any case the government and TV channel owners both can reduce their problems by benefiting from the recommendations made by the commission comprising retired justice Nasir Aslam Zahid and Mr Javed Jabbar, some years ago, and which are available in an impressive-looking volume.
It is necessary to bury the regime of disinformation because if the people are fed on anything but the truth they will never be able to properly exercise their democratic rights, including electing the best possible representatives, the governments will not be guided by a true picture of the state of affairs and the world will keep on trying to guess what to believe about Pakistan and what to ignore.
The situation cannot be corrected through punitive measures alone, however impossible it may be to ignore the serious abuse of freedom of expression. Matters will improve if the government sheds its fear of transparency and starts sharing its decisions, plans and policies with parliamentarians and the people at large, preferably in Pakistan’s national languages.
The media must help by stopping to ply stories attributed to ‘reliable’ or ‘usually well-informed’ sources and naming the source within the story itself.
Published in Dawn, February 1st, 2018