THERE is much to be cherished about the freedom that our media, especially the electronic media, has come to enjoy. The extent to which this freedom — it was called licence in earlier days — has gone is provoking a debate. This is a positive development because there are some media heavyweights who are now ready to admit that something is amiss.
When critics first started speaking up against the electronic media a few years ago, the issue that gave rise to controversy was the portrayal of violence. The Pakistan Medical Association raised this issue and invited some journalists for a dialogue to explain how scenes of violence impacted on the minds of young children.
Some media representatives defended themselves taking the plea that information should not be suppressed and if society was riddled with violence it was inevitable that the media would report it. Not much came out of this exercise immediately. In due course the journalists’ body (mainly the PFUJ — Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists — when Mazhar Abbas was the secretary general) did attempt to draw up a code of conduct that suggested restraint in reporting violence.
Now other issues have come up. There was the case of moral policing done by a presenter from Samaa TV who invaded the privacy of couples in a park to ‘expose’ their ‘immorality’. The hue and cry that followed led to her being sacked.
Television’s political role is another controversial issue that has seen charges being levelled against various channels of acting as spokesmen for the establishment, of trying to bring about a ‘regime change’, conducting a public trial of leaders and so on. The fact is that the media, notably the news channels, and journalists have themselves emerged as political actors and kingmakers. Instead of reporting impartially or investigating objectively, they are playing a partisan role. Hence, as is to be expected in a polarised society, the rumpus is loud. But it is also divided and therefore has produced no impact.
Since the media is not a monolithic entity, what emerges is a babble, both on the wider media scene and on the screen itself. Participants trying to speak at the same time and raising their voices in a bid to be heard are familiar sights. A strong and independent media in a democratic society always has clout. But it ordinarily does not use this clout blatantly to promote its own interests. Not so in Pakistan. Anyone who wants to be someone in the national power structure first scrambles to own a media outlet.
And this is being defended in the name of democracy which is a messy business and the media operating in these times will inevitably be equally messy, we are reminded. Babar Ayaz, a former colleague in Dawn and now a communication consultant, is right when he says the environment in which the media operates — especially in the context of democracy — has changed and that has affected the media’s working.
The change in the political environment has brought us the boon of media freedom. Until the transition process is completed and the economic culture of the new multi-structural society evolves we should be prepared for the contradictions we witness. After all it was not too long ago when an editor could be thrown into prison for minor transgressions of draconian press laws, and television and radio were officially owned. When the controls were relaxed there came a wind of heady freedom that has thrown the media off balance.
But that is not the only factor that has affected the media. Another change has come through the rapid development of technology that has ushered in the 24/7 phenomenon. Television’s content and style have changed to meet its need of filling in so much air time at minimum cost. It leaves no space for the viewer to absorb the information transmitted and reflect on it. There is no off day and the screen does not go blank as it did in the 1960s (when PTV made its debut) after the national anthem had been played.
This has also created a new need for television to expand its revenues that has in turn led to the battle for ratings to earn a greater number of commercials, thus affecting the quality of programmes. This has serious implications for the country for after all is said and done we know that the electronic media is shaping our lives and not just politics. With TV hosts who do not even understand the potential they have of inflicting damage on our society, have no training in audio-visual presentation and are ignorant of laws that have a bearing on the media, this unchecked freedom can be devastating. An exercise to introduce sanity in the domain of political reporting will prove to be a challenge.
There is a way out. Babar Ayaz calls on the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan to hold workshops to inform the media persons about democracy and multi-structural societies. Good idea. But why not expand the scope? Media persons also need to be educated about their social responsibilities, ethics and what is called in simple language journalism.
It is not what is reported but how that needs to be addressed. Moreover, can speculation be allowed to take centre stage? We know very well how a statement by a political leader can create varying — even misleading — impressions by the way it is presented. So Mazhar Abbas is spot on when he calls for the training of media persons in technical skills — reading the news, handling the camera etc.