Regulating electronic media
Dr Robert Maynard Hutchison, Vice Chancellor of Chicago University who headed Hutchison Commission formed in US 1942 to make recommendations on the freedom of expression and media’s obligations towards the society, in the backdrop of growing calls by the US public for government intervention to check the indiscretions of the media and attempts by the media to avoid incisive government regulation, remarked that “freedom comes with responsibility”.
The report of the Commission submitted in 1947 is regarded as the Magna Carta of the modern concept of freedom of expression and media’s responsibilities towards the society. It unequivocally emphasised that the need for media to provide accurate, truthful and comprehensive account of events acts as a forum for exchange of comment and criticism; presents and clarifies goals and values of the society and projects a representative picture of the constituent groups of the society. The report also reiterated the fact that society and public have a right to expect high standards of performance and as such the government intervention can be justified to secure public good. Ethical and professional codes of conduct for the media drawn up by UNESCO, International Federation of Journalists, media associations, press councils in the countries where self-regulatory arrangement is in place and the code of ethics which forms the part of Press Council Ordinance and PEMRA Content Rules 2012 in Pakistan, invariably espouse the principles of the ‘social responsibility theory’ propounded by Hutchison Commission.
Judged on the touchstone of the foregoing, the media landscape in Pakistan is not so enviable. While it zealously tends to maintain and protect its freedom, it is not showing the sense of social responsibility that goes with the freedom of expression. The media, regrettably, like the political polarisation in the country, is also divided into anti-government, pro-government, and rightist groups with each entity trying to rub in its own skewed and partisan views on national issues and even resorting to smear campaigns against their supposed rivals. Consequently, truth and social responsibility have become casualties of this rampant media culture. A particular media group, which has well established credentials of hostility towards the sitting government, seems to have thrown all caution to the wind in complete disregard to the universally accepted professional and ethical standards and is hell bent to distort its image.
Handling and regulating the electronic media is arguably the most difficult, arduous and sensitive undertaking for any government whether in the developed or developing countries. While the governments, especially in the democratic polities have the obligation to provide any enabling environment to the media in carrying out its professional responsibilities in regards to informing, educating and entertaining the people, it is also ultimately its responsibility to ensure that the media remains within the parameters set by the constitution, law, ethical norms and the regulatory mechanism in place. It follows from this responsibility that the government entities charged with the responsibility to regulate the media are manned and headed by thoroughly professional people who understand the media culture and have the necessary expertise in creating a balance between the need for ensuring freedom of expression and the imperative of social responsibility.
It is an undeniable fact that due to the lack of proper training of the personnel manning these channels and those handling the current affairs programmes, certain media outlets have shown a growing propensity to use the freedom of expression as a license to transgress the professional and ethical codes and flout the regulatory legal apparatus in place.
PEMRA, a regulatory body for the electronic media in Pakistan, also shares the blame for this undesirable situation for its inability to reach out to these media outlets in a professional manner and establishing a productive relationship with them in regards to sorting out the issues arising out of the indiscretions of the media without any incisive interference in their working. The reason for inadequate and inept handling of the electronic media is that the organisation has been headed and manned by non-professional people who had no inkling of the international media culture and the ground realities in Pakistan.
It is, however, heartening to note that for the first time since its inception PEMRA has a professional chairman in the person of Chaudhry Rashid Ahmed. He has rendered services as press officer in the Pakistan embassies in Tehran and Colombo. It is hoped that relying on his vast experience and the professional ingenuity, he will be able to create conducive environment for the electronic media and the government to play their complimentary roles in the most cordial and cooperative manner.
This is an age of specialisation and there is no room for square pegs in the round holes. There is an imperative need to revamp the entire structure of PEMRA to make sure that only people with media background and expertise are posted in the authority and all the non-professional are shunted out to turn the organisation into a vibrant and pro-active entity.
The writer is an academic.