Media landscape and polls

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Balanced media coverage for 2013 elections

The report of the Hutchison Commission submitted in the USA in 1947 is regarded as the Magna Carte of the modern concept of freedom of expression and media’s responsibilities towards society. It unequivocally emphasized the need for media to provide accurate, truthful and comprehensive account of events, act as a forum for exchange of comment and criticism, present and clarify goals and values of the society and make sure that it projected a representative picture of the constituent groups of the society. The report also reiterated the fact that society and public had a right to expect high standards of performance and as such intervention of the government could be justified to secure public good.

The 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 in Pakistan invariably espouse the principles of the Social Responsibility theory. The spirit of Social Responsibility is that freedom comes with responsibility. The concept of media being fourth pillar of the state stems from the belief that media represents the society and such is a defining characteristic of the social, cultural, political and economic systems of a country.

Judged on the touchstone of the foregoing, the media landscape in Pakistan is not as enviable as it ought to be. While it zealously tends to maintain and protect its freedom –and rightly so – it is not showing the sense of social responsibility that goes with freedom of expression. The media, regrettably, like the political polarization in the country, is also divided into anti-government, pro-government, and right-wing 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.

A pluralist media disseminating unvarnished and truthful information about events to society and acting as a forum for free, unbiased and non-partisan debate on issues of national importance, is indispensable entity in a democratic dispensation. In fact, a pluralist media and democracy compliment and reinforce each other and the former can play its role as the fourth pillar of the state more effectively in a democratic environment.

However, despite the existing inadequacies of the media, I am of the considered view that the freedom of expression enjoyed by the media in Pakistan currently is the best thing that has ever happened in this land of the pure. The media, notwithstanding the indiscretions committed in disregard to the internationally recognized ethical and professional codes of conduct, can rightly boast of making a sterling contribution that it made during the lawyers movement for the restoration of the judiciary and protecting and strengthening the cause of democracy during the last five years. The outgoing PPP-led coalition government also deserves appreciation for tolerating erratic behaviour of a section of the media and remaining committed to providing an enabling environment for the media to enjoy freedom of expression.

Media has to be mindful of the fact that there is no concept of unbridled concept of freedom of expression anywhere in the world. It is, ultimately, the responsibility of the government to make sure that while enjoying its freedom the media remains within the internationally recognized parameters of freedom of expression and the obligations towards society and the state. It does not have the right to use the freedom of expression as a license to misinform the public or promote fissiparous tendencies in the society. As a protector of fundamental liberties of the people and a watchdog against the government, it has to make sure that the job is done objectively and honestly. Resorting to falsehood, misreporting, distorting facts and dishing out speculative stuff does not fall in the domain of freedom of expression. This kind of behaviour is not tolerated even in the societies which boast of freedom of media as the hallmark of their polity. During the US elections in 2000, the bulk of the media relying on the data from exit polls and vote projections gathered by Voters News Service (VNS), which included ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX, NBC AND AP and its subsidiaries such as New York Times declared before the close of the polls mistakenly that Al Gore had won the state of Florida and thus the Presidency. Later the same media claimed that George W. Bush had won. Following the elections, several members of Congress made veiled threats of government regulation of media but backed away after network executives vowed during the congressional hearings not to project winners until polls had closed. And in spite of an expansive overall of the computer system, VNS was disbanded. It was simply a case of wrong predictions.

Now that the democracy seems to have taken roots in the country and the people are going to exercise their right of franchise to decide who runs the state affairs for the next five years, the media has a still greater role in consolidating the gains of democracy. It has to use its power to change perceptions and helping people to make informed choices during the coming elections in a judicious manner. It is obligatory on it to rise above all considerations but national interest. Almost all political parties are on the election trail and some have already announced their manifestos on which they claim to win public franchise.

The ensuing elections are being billed as a defining moment in the history of Pakistan and shall be a milestone which will determine the direction the country will take in the future. The media has to make sure that it keeps itself away from taking sides, playing favourites or presenting an unbalanced picture of the election campaign. It has to inform and educate the public about the challenges that are at hand, discuss the manifestoes of all the parties in an objective manner and curb the propensities to scandalize things or portraying issues tinged with biases of any kind. This is how the media can make the ensuing elections a meaningful exercise in promoting democracy and the installation of a truly representative government in the country.

The writer is an academic.