And a lack of ethics adding fuel to the fire

What transpired between women rights activist Marvi Sirmed and JUI (F) leader Hafiz Hamdullah in a talk show on News One TV, represented male chauvinism at its worst and the deep rooted disdain that men of this pure land, especially the self-styled custodians of nation’s morality hold against the opposite sex; a social fault line which has been the bane of social harmony and progress. It also reflected poorly on the judgment of the editorial staff of the TV channel, considering the fact that it was a recorded programme.

Reportedly the media watchdog, PEMRA has served a notice on the TV channel for airing this highly objectionable verbal brawl between the two panelists. The notice reads “Not only the host of the show had no control to prevent the guests from indulging in heated argument but it appeared that threats and insults were deliberately allowed to continue to the extent that might have led Hafiz Hamdullah to attack the female analysts had the other guest not intervened. It is clearly noticeable from the clipping that this was done at the expense of the dignity of guests which is against journalistic ethics”.

What the PEMRA notice has said is hardly disputable. Unfortunately, the TV talk shows on all the private TV channels invariably are bereft of the ethical side of the bargain. Frankly speaking it is quite an ordeal to watch these talk shows, hosted by some uncouth and non-professional anchor perso – barring a few honourable exceptions – yelling at the top of their shrilling voices at the panelist, trying to rub in their own partisan perceptions, getting involved in a debate with the panelists instead listening to their views and even encouraging confrontation between the panelists, like the one between Marvi Sirmed and Hafiz Hamdullah. Such behavior is a blatant violation of the ethical code agreed between the government and the Pakistan Broadcasting Association, the licensing conditions of PRMRA and its guidelines as well as the internationally recognized professional and ethical codes. Freedom of expression and media is contingent upon strict adherence to social responsibility.

In regards to freedom of expression the social responsibility theory propounded by Hutchison Commission in 1947, is regarded as the Magna Carte of the modern concept of freedom of expression and media’s responsibilities towards the society.  It unequivocally emphasised 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 projects 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 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 in Pakistan, invariably espouse the principles of the Social Responsibility theory propounded by Hutchison Commission.


Being aggressive in approach by the anchor person is adorable but descending into an insulting mode is absolutely non-professional and detestable. They also lack the ability of professional moderator to control the flow of arguments as is evident from their nod to the shouting matches among the participants, presenting a spectacle of shindigs rather than serious forums of debate on national issues; so repulsive to the eyes and jarring to the ears. A professional anchor person and host of such shows would always thoroughly brief the participants about the etiquettes of the discussion before coming on air and also curb his own inclinations to join the melee . Most of the anchor persons are inductees from the print media and are not well conversant with the professional culture of the electronic media and the art of conducting panel discussions or talk shows. Some even have not worked as journalists at all before landing into the arena. That probably is the reason that these shows look more like entertainment stuff than the forums for informative and educative debates.

Proper professional training of the journalists working in the electronic channels, therefore, is absolutely necessary to achieve the growth of healthy journalism in the country and strict adherence to the agreed code of conduct. There is, therefore, an urgent need to establish training institutes for the journalists of the electronic media, especially the anchor persons, where they are made abreast of the media ethics and relevant laws as well as professional techniques and practices.  These institutions can either be established by the government or by the collaborative efforts of the electronic channels themselves with adequate support of the government.

Freedom of expression is probably the best thing that has happened in this land of the pure and the government undoubtedly deserves the credit for ungrudgingly respecting the freedom of the media and even trying to create an enabling environment for media to discharge its responsibilities in a professional manner. No doubt media is a watchdog against the government but the reality is that government is also a watchdog against the media. It is obligatory on it to ensure that while enjoying its freedom the media does not cross the Rubicon. That is where intervention becomes justified like the PEMRA has done. In my view PEMRA needs to adopt a pro-active approach to make sure that the incidents like the confrontation between Marvi Sirmed and Hafiz Hamdullah are not repeated on the private channels and the agreed ethical codes are strictly adhered to. It should also make sure that all the TV channels exercise a strict editorial control on their talk shows. An increased and frequent interaction with the owners of TV channels and the Pakistan Broadcasting Association could also help to improve the situation.

Nevertheless, despite all the foregoing observations, it is my conviction that the overall media landscape in the country, notwithstanding its imperfections, is very encouraging. Media and democracy are indispensable for each other. They reinforce each other. The media being a watch-dog against the government and a representative of the society is under social, legal and constitutional obligation to show utmost sense of responsibility. Freedom comes with responsibility and therefore the media needs to defend its independence through responsible behavior.