For a country like Pakistan, it is all the more important
Media is important for any political system. Its importance increases in a democratic political system. It is a relationship of interdependence between the media and democracy. Media flourishes in a democratic system. Once the media begins to function as an autonomous entity, it strengthens democratic and participatory processes and institutions. It has a direct stake in open, competitive democratic political order.
It also serves as an instrument of socialisation of people into societal values, norms, political orientations and historical perspectives.
One major criterion to determine the quality of democracy is the presence of free media that allows the flow of divergent socio-political and cultural ideas and discourses.
Freedom cannot be a license to do anything, or project any perspective the way a media group likes. The media cannot function in a ‘free-for-all’ manner and employ its strategic position and power to communicate in a manner that it causes dissension and conflict in the society, promote highly partisan and negative ideas or becomes a propaganda instrument for a socio-political perspective and a political or religious group. It need not target a section of populace, group or the government for uncalled for and highly personalised negative propaganda.
It has become increasingly important to evaluate media’s performance with reference to the notion of social responsibility because its capacity to influence the society has increased tremendously over the last two decades. Modern communication technology has enabled the media to reach the large number of people quickly through multiple ways, giving it power to shape the disposition of the people and their choices. Further, the proliferation of media has made people more vulnerable to its news, views and entertainment.
In a country like Pakistan where the norms and institutions of democracy are not well-established, media needs to play its role with a lot more caution. A democratic system in transition has a weak capacity for crisis management through political participation, dialogue and accommodation. Therefore, media has to be more restrained in analysing and interpreting news and other information. Any unsubstantiated news and information devoid of editorial caution can be unsettling for nascent democracy.
Pakistan faces the threats of religious extremism, growing violence and terrorism. These threats can make the state system dysfunctional and result in the breakdown of social harmony and stability. The media needs to play a positive role in stemming the tide of these trends in Pakistan. This places an additional responsibility on the media to make sure that its operations do not accentuate these negative trends. Each media group has to use its professional judgment and editorial control to ensure that news, views and other contents are helpful to defusing tensions and promoting religious and cultural tolerance and peaceful resolution of societal conflict. Violence and terrorism and those who engage in these activities should not be glorified. Pakistan’s print and electronic media should learn from the experience of the media in other conflict ridden societies.
The importance of media is going to increase when Pakistan embarks on holding the national and provincial elections. The media should not act as an instrument of a political party during the elections. Rather, it should provide as much news as possible on the activities of all political parties and provide analysis of the election campaign and election manifestos of different political parties. It should also encourage people to exercise their right to vote. An active media can check the fairness of the electoral process and report irregularities, if any.
A number of print and electronic media groups in Pakistan often find it difficult to maintain non-partisan professional orientations. They are carried away by the polarised political environment and cannot get out of a partisan political discourse. These trends reflect weak professional capacity.
Social responsibility and accountability of media can be ensured by four major ways. Firstly, a broad legal framework is provided by the state within which the media operates. However, the state should not micromanage media or interfere in its day-to-day affairs. Recently, the High Courts and the Supreme Court have restrained the media from making critical comments on the judges and the courts. This restriction ignores the fact that the superior judiciary has become the main arena of political contestation for competing political controversies. This leads to critical comments of how the superior courts are dealing with political cases.
Secondly, the most important instruments of accountability of the media are internal control mechanisms to ensure that it meets with the primary obligations of social responsibility. It needs to uphold democratic participatory norms and socio-economic equity and make sure that the standard of quality, credibility and nonpartisanship are maintained for news, information, and political commentaries. For entertainment, quality, variety and aesthetic sensitivities have to be maintained. In this respect, each media group has to address a host of questions and seek balanced solutions on their own.
Thirdly, media can establish collective institutional arrangements for monitoring the media and giving advisories as corrective measures.
Fourthly, voluntary societal groups should monitor TV programmes and newspapers and other publications. If they have reservations on some programming, news and visuals on TV or they take an exception to published contents in newspapers, they can raise the issue with the particular media group. They can also make suggestions for new programmes in public interest.
There is a need to increase knowledge-based programmes on current affairs rather than summoning different drum beaters of different political parties who make highly partisan statements on the TV or engage in shouting contests with each other.
Given the profound impact of the media on the state and society and its role as an important link between the external and internal environments of a state, it has to function within the parameters of social responsibility and it must be accountable to the state and society. The state can create an overall legal framework for all branches of the media. However, micromanagement of media is not the task of the government. The day-to-day media affairs relating to quality, credibility, societal sensitivities and ethics should be left to the media and the society to regulate. The media people are responsible citizens and it is assumed that they all want Pakistan to shape up as a democratic and tolerant society with internal harmony, peace and stability, emphasising constitutionalism, socio-economic justice and societal development.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.