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The way forward

December 18, 2011

AS the media in Pakistan grows into a bigger industry with increasing influence to shape real-world events, the issue of ethical journalism is bound to crop up in consequence.

It is not just a matter of different media houses highlighting this politician’s statement in contrast to that one’s. It is also a matter of how various stories, from bomb blasts to rape to the treatment of prisoners, are reported.

In the past few years there have been a number of instances where a political party affiliate or the state itself has expressed the desire to rein in the media, leading to discussions, sometimes in parliament, to frame laws that codify what can be reported and often, more importantly, how it can be reported. Such debates have been decried by media houses and professionals as attempts to censor, and have rightly been condemned.

Yet public posturing over such issues has tended to overshadow the fact that there is a serious problem here, one that no one, least of all those working in the media industry, has achieved any success in addressing.

It is not just a matter of which talk-show anchor goes after which political party or individual. It is also about the brother of someone who was killed in a bombing being asked how he feels in a live news feed beamed into thousands of homes for the vicarious ‘pleasure’ of unknown millions.

It is about rape victims being asked on camera how they feel about what has been done to them, or those standing trial for a crime — not convicted — being presented as guilty by a reporter or an interviewer who has, in his zeal, ended up playing the part of judge, jury and executioner.

In any country, the good the media can do in terms of the public’s right to know is forever dogged by the evil it may do in terms of misrepresentation, leading public opinion and perhaps letting the ratings game overshadow the need for ethics.

Yet Pakistan, unlike many countries with a burgeoning media industry, has not yet come up with a professional press complaints’ forum. The only move in this direction was the agreement, in 2009, between major television networks to standardise professional guidelines, accommodate viewer concern about excessive violence or terrorism and so on.

How much this much-publicised agreement has been adhered to, or how effective it has been in Pakistan’s increasingly violent and crime-ridden context, is difficult to judge.

Nevertheless, the existence of such an agreement does not affect the need for a press complaints forum where anybody can lodge a grievance and expect to have the matter looked into fairly and freely.

Such a forum ought have the jurisdiction to adjudicate on complaints against both print and electronic news organisations, and disputes with them, providing a formal route for citizens — news consumers — who otherwise have no recourse other than (in newspapers) to send a letter to the editor or in terms of the electronic news, send a letter of complaint.

At the moment, the only outside forum to which a citizen can take a complaint against a news organisation is the court system.

This is symptomatic of the manner in which the news industry in Pakistan has grown, from a handful of newspapers and one state-owned news channel at the turn of the millennium to a raucous cacophony after the industry was liberalised.

And in many cases, the same media houses own multiple print and electronic streams which contribute to and feed off each other. While this is not objectionable in itself, disputes are bound to arise; thus the need for an independent — i.e. not to do with the state — forum for complaints. In this sense, the industry has not kept pace with its own success.

Setting up such a press complaints commission is hardly a difficult task. The most obvious source of funding for the secretariat would be from the media houses themselves, for they are the ones that stand to gain the most in terms of transparency and accountability of their output.

It is not hard to imagine a ‘jury of peers’ — rather than a judge of the court — deciding whether the limits of journalistic ethics have been breached; this would, in fact, constitute a substantive step towards self-regulation, something Pakistan’s media desperately needs if it is to stave off governmental efforts to censor or interfere.

If the media houses were on board, such a complaints committee could exercise ethical — albeit not legal — power over the suitability of what is put out in print or over the airwaves. This would bolster the credibility of Pakistan’s media houses, indicating their willingness to open themselves up to the scrutiny of those who count: other professionals in journalism.

The problem with taking such disputes to the courts, as is currently the only possibility, is that legal battles such as these tend to be expensive and long drawn-out. This is not just prohibitive for the ordinary citizen, it can also tilt the case in favour of media houses that have deep pockets and sustaining power.

A press complaints commission, on the other hand, could settle matters swiftly and fairly. It would have no sentencing power, true, but if it were set up with the collaboration of major media houses, this would be more than compensated for by the ethical authority it would wield.

In any media landscape, the possibility of error, the lapse of judgment and even abuse increases as the size of the industry grows. One has only to look at the UK’s News of the World to understand that. But in many cases, the problems lie in the realm of ethics rather than laws breached, as was the case with NoW.

In such instances, an independent body with recommending rather than sentencing power can prove very useful as the industry’s regulator. Attempts to rein in the media are never going to go away, especially in a country such as Pakistan where the precedent of press censorship is well-established. An obvious way to neutralise such efforts is to self-regulate.

The writer is a member of staff.