On the media

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Thanks to our 24/7 electronic media and the perennial punditry of it anchors, there is rarely a dull moment in Pakistani politics. An unconfirmed report on a Karachi based channel the other day about the intention of the government to sack the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, forced the Prime Minister to address the nation, in order to clear the air.

The very next day, judges of the apex court disposed of the case without a whimper despite the fact that the government had politely disregarded their order for a written assurance from the Prime Minister.

The interim report of the media committee, headed by the APNS president Mr. Hameed Haroon, to investigate the matter is a severe criticism of a section of the media and the manner in which it operates. It conceded that media people, while reporting on major national issues, were not universally observing journalistic norms.

It said that the reporter who broke the story quoted government sources to have provided him with the information. But he and his bosses failed to appear before the committee or substantiate their claim. It is obvious that in this case, the reporter did not bother to cross check his story nor was he able to identify his source.

Contrary to prevalent norms observed by reputed news organizations and journalists, the tendency to sensationalize has become the norm rather than the exception. The committee noted that once the story broke, other channels also ran it without bothering to cross-check their facts.

The assembly of all seventeen judges at midnight within a few hours, after breaking of the false news, almost made it a self-fulfilling prophecy. The already tense relations between the judiciary and the government came to a breaking point despite assurances from the president and the prime minister that they had no intention of de-notifying the judges.

Media is a success story amongst the decaying institutions of the State. Most news channels owned by large print media groups give them more than life size power. Although spin doctoring is a legitimate tool used by stakeholders, including the military and intelligence agencies to embed their message, journalists can become an unwitting tool of those who have their own agendas. Hence this newfound clout has to be exercised with utmost caution.

Editorial control needs to be exercised despite the electronic medias 24-hour news cycle and a mad rush for breaking news. With most anchors achieving a celebrity status this becomes even more difficult. Owing to fierce competition, most channel owners are more obsessed with ratings than credibility or editorial control.

There has been talk of a self regulatory media or press commission based upon a voluntary code of ethics to check this slide into a free for all spat. However this kind of arrangement is unlikely to work in a polarized atmosphere lacking even a modicum of consensus. Even in developed democracies like the UK such self-regulatory mechanisms have worked only with limited success.

The ruling party is somehow losing patience with the free media. The PPP, perhaps unnerved by unrelenting criticism from the biggest media group of the country, first gave a call for its boycott. Later its leadership in the Punjab, perhaps taking a cue from its central leadership hurled the ultimate insult at journalists belonging to the group by branding them as Indian agents and enemies of democracy.

Politicians rarely understand the dynamics of getting good press. In a free environment like the present one, the only way to get positive media coverage is not through intimidation but by engagement. The arcane methods employed by successive governments in the past no longer work.

Previously most media owners could be coerced into submission by a policy of carrot and stick. Thanks to the expansion of the private sector, stoppage of government advertising no longer cows down a recalcitrant media house. Nor does shutting down channels through cable operators can work for long.

As has been witnessed in the recent past the independent and ever assertive higher judiciary has become a natural ally of the free press. It rarely hesitates to provide relief to the aggrieved media. In this context public opinion is also firmly behind an independent and intrusive media. It is difficult to imagine life without free wheeling anchors and columnists. The sooner the government adapts to the new normal the better it will be for its long-term survival.

But this does not mean that the media has a license to kill. There are genuine complaints against print media columnists and television anchors whose biases get the better of them. Some of them have thrown objectivity to the winds in their unrelenting pursuit to see the back of the government of the day. Many dates and deadlines for the ultimate demise of the government have come and gone. But this has not deterred them from giving fresh deadlines.

A sizeable section of opinion has been pining for a change though the apex court. As if the D-day had finally arrived, a news channel owned by the former mayor of Lahore has of recent developed the habit of holding marathon transmissions whenever the Supreme Court is hearing or deciding an important case against the government.

The Supreme Court in its wisdom has consistently avoided a clash with other institutions of the State. This is despite provocation from a section of the media and governments legal eagles, which believe in confrontation rather than implementing edicts of the court in letter and spirit.

The Supreme Courts statesman-like decision to refer the new mechanism for appointment of judges of superior courts through the eighteenth amendment back to the parliament would certainly disappoint the naysayers. The government has got a respite till January next year to correct the mechanism of selection of the judges in light of the guidelines provided by the Court.

In this backdrop the limitations of the media to unseat governments must be recognized. Medias job is to inform interpret and analyze on the basis of credible sources to the best of its abilities. To support a movement against oppression or tyranny however is also the inherent right of the media. But it has to wield its power cautiously and with responsibility in order to retain it in the long run. With great power comes great responsibility.

The writer is Editor, Pakistan Today