TODAY, the media in Pakistan is largely free to write and show what it wants. This freedom has been achieved mainly due to four factors firstly, the people's support for a vibrant, fearless and free media has been essential.
Secondly, the journalist community has struggled for a free media over the past many decades. The third factor is globalisation and the media boom, and fourthly, technological innovations in the media field and the emergence of new information and communication technologies have been instrumental in helping the media in Pakistan achieve its present-day freedom.
It can be argued that the efforts to curb media freedom following the Nov 3, 2007 emergency were foiled by the above factors. New technologies including mobile phones and the Internet greatly helped in defeating the desperate moves to curb the media. The web and multiple platforms of the new media provided alternatives to cable TV distribution networks for both the broadcast media and the citizens/audience.
However, though the media as an institution enjoys enormous power and influence, media organisations are not charity houses they operate as businesses and have commercial interests. There is a natural tendency to indulge in corruption and malpractice when an institution enjoys absolute power, particularly in the absence of a strong system of accountability.
The broadcast media in Pakistan is in its infancy. It has come under criticism for the abuse of power. The increasing frequency of columns and letters to the editor in the print media by citizens complaining of the growing influence of biased elements in the broadcast media shows that citizens are concerned about the exploitation of free speech by the commercial broadcast media for personal gains.
Some talk-show anchors have also been criticised for their partiality and lack of objectivity. The growing concerns and reservations of the public about the broadcast media demonstrate that public confidence is eroding, which may lead to a trust deficit between the public and the broadcast media. Surprisingly, this debate is confined to the print media and there is hardly any discussion on this serious issue in the broadcast media.
It seems that the notions of media freedom and freedom of speech are being misunderstood and misconstrued by the recently liberated broadcast media in Pakistan. British philosopher John Stuart Mill underlined the need for free speech mainly for three reasons. He believed that freedom to read or write is an important element to expose and reveal the truth, to ensure self-development and self-fulfilment of citizens and to help ensure participation of the citizens in a democracy.
The objective of media freedom can be realised only when public trust and confidence reposed in the media is respected and protected by the media itself by acting as a true watchdog, keeping an eye on the government on behalf of the public. The silent consent and mandate of the public to the media grants the latter absolute power to inquire and question the government actions on the people's behalf.
The problem arises when the public mandate is breached and media power is abused. In that case public interest takes a backseat and personal motives for profits and gain are given priority. Ultimately, truth becomes the casualty at the hands of the 'custodians' of public interest!
The public has a right to know the truth, which is essential for the growth of a democratic system. This is possible only when a plurality of voices, objectivity and diversity of views are not compromised on for the sake of commercial interests. The media sphere is in fact a public sphere.
The success of this sphere depends on equal participation and inclusion of all voices in society. The abuse of this sphere is the negation of the principles of free speech and democracy. Therefore, this sphere should not be misused for settling personal scores and achieving personal agendas.
There is no dearth of exemplary journalists in the media landscape of Pakistan. They have not indulged in any practice which damaged the public interest. They are known for their integrity, honesty and commitment to telling the truth. They have preferred to live hand-to-mouth but never violated the public trust.
On the other hand the growing trend in broadcast media for attracting anchors on heavy remunerations, anchors who possess skills of creating sensationalism and who spice news with hypothesis, is an example of how media channels are departing from objectivity and balanced reporting. Furthermore, the frequent switching of anchors from one channel to another mainly for economic gains in utter disregard of the basic ethos of the journalistic profession also supports the argument that broadcast media in Pakistan is headed for over-commercialisation.
The media as an institution and fourth estate is accountable to the public and responsible for its actions. Media practitioners should stop thinking they are above the law. Let the media introduce an internal scheme of checks and balances. Undoubtedly, this is an uphill task.
Accountability of the media is not possible under the disputed regulatory regime. Media organisations and civil society should jointly constitute a commission for this task. The recent coming together of several leading TV channels to frame rules for terrorism coverage is a step in the right direction. This move may help purge the elements abusing the power of the media in violation of the public mandate.