Media and the elections

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Embracing the spirit of democracy

Hard as it is to accept, we live in a world where the opinions and the outlook we have, are not entirely shaped by our internal convictions and passion, but instead, to a great degree by external forces, most of which have one agenda or another. More pertinently, in case of Pakistan, and particularly in respect to our political allegiances and opinions, our outlook is primarily shaped by the chatter on the media-waves. And while this is virtuous in a society which otherwise is ill-informed, but in an election year this phenomenon is dangerous.

Allowing the forces within our media to form our opinions for us, most of which have their own subjective entrenchments and agendas, can effectively lead to overriding our freedom of choice – the very right that rests at the head of our democratic dispensation.

Let us take a step back and assess the role and responsibility of the media. The electronic as well as print media is primarily in the business of discharging three responsibilities: i) reporting the news, as and when it happens, in a clear and dispassionate manner, ii) doing the investigative journalism, in order to unearth and bring forth the truth that others might be hiding from public eye, and iii) analysis of the issues and expert opinion, in order to put the news chatter in perspective.

But under none of these responsibilities can one justify acting partisan in an election cycle, or slinging mud at individuals who have fallen out of favour with different news channels or reporters. And in no way can we justify individual anchors and columnists (e.g. those with trimmed beards, investigative titles, a sense of moral superiority, and venom for others) to make personal vendettas out of individual political candidates. Doing so, under the garb of furthering the cause of electing ‘sadiq and amin’ candidates, is nothing more than spiteful journalism. And while that might be tolerable (not really) any other time, it certainly violates all contours of responsible journalism and professional ethics during the election period, for it is tantamount to influencing people’s choice and shaping the future of democracy in this land.

In January of this year, on a petition filed by Hamid Mir and Absar Alam, the honorable Supreme Court took up the matter concerning code of conduct of journalists. On January 15, 2013, the honorable Supreme Court announced the formation of a two-member Media Accountability Commission, headed by Justice (Retd) Nasir Aslam Zahid and comprising Javed Jabbar, with terms of reference that include corruption charges and media independence. The result and progress, in this regard, however, has been wanting.

And no significant changes have yet been made with regards to the outlook and philosophy of journalism. In fact, the journalistic standards, in pursuit of sensationalism, have wandered far away from the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE) Press Code of Ethics. And there seems to be no plausible solution or frame of reference to bring them back within the contours of professionalism. Any effort from the outside, be it the government or the civil society, will be seen as impinging upon the independence of media. And thus, the solution must emanate from the journalist community itself.

Democracy is not simply the idea that each individual walks to the polling station to cast ones ballot. Imbibed in the spirit of democracy is the ideal that each vote will be cast according to the free will and conviction of the voter. And that, while the voter must have access to as much information as possible prior to making his or her choice, still, the democratic choice will be exercised free of all external passions and prejudices. In this regard, the media waves – that play a pivotal role in the furtherance of our national discourse – have a critical role to play during the election season. And that role, while fulfilling their journalistic responsibilities, is to ensure that they exercise restraint when picking sides between candidates and parties in order to ensure that personal and entrenched vendettas of the media personalities do not shape or (in many cases) override the common man’s inherent choice to vote according to his own convictions.

There is an old Chinese proverb that roughly translates to the idea that ‘restraint is sometimes the best action’. Embracing the spirit of democracy, during the election cycle, our media houses will do well to pay heed to this idea.

The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School. He can be reached at: [email protected]