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Media soul-searching

July 22, 2012

JOURNALISTS in the dock, media houses hurling accusations at one another, public scepticism growing. It’s time for the mainstream media in Pakistan, particularly the freewheeling and hugely influential electronic media, to assess where it stands and how to rebuild public trust and faith in an institution that is quintessentially Pakistani in its nature — there are some good parts but there are far too many dark spots. While the accusations are manifold and the protagonists many, the crux of the scandal is that several media proprietors and journalists are alleged to have discarded the industry’s raison d’etre — informing the public and holding public officials to account. Instead, they stand accused of having fallen into cosy relationships with power brokers, politicians and sundry other vested interests, selling their viewpoints in return for financial gain to the media entities and individuals involved. With intra-industry regulation lax, state regulation viewed with hostility and a public with an insatiable appetite for all things political, perhaps it was inevitable that scandal would seep through Pakistani journalism.

What can be done? The attempt by some quarters to move the superior judiciary to investigate misdeeds in the media industry may seem noble to some but it is misguided. For one, unethical and unprincipled as bribery may be, it’s not clear if private sector employees or employers would attract criminal sanction even if it were to be proved. In addition, the superior judiciary itself is a frequent subject of media discourse, so the potential conflicts of interests are too obvious to ignore. In any case, what exactly can the court realistically do to determine whether someone has, say, received a house in a foreign country or a large sum of money in a foreign bank account?

A better course of action is also a more difficult one: the industry itself — proprietors, journalists, viewers and readers represented by civil society — will need to draw up guidelines for separating news from opinion, fact from fiction and paid content from independent thought. State oversight is definitely unwelcome given the nature of the Pakistani state but that does not mean the state cannot have a facilitating role in creating an independent oversight body that reflects the commercial imperative of the news business while at the same time safeguarding it as a special sector with the public interest at stake. Over time, then, perhaps some of the worst excesses would be curbed. Realistically, though, the Pakistani media is drawn from, operates within and caters to a deeply flawed Pakistani society. To expect it to exist as a beacon of righteousness amidst a sea of mediocrity and worse may be a stretch too far.