Major Amir left Taliban Talks in April this month. What caught my eye though was the reason why he decided to do so. The reason was ‘media hype’ created.(Pakistan Today April 29, 2014) “ The government peace process with the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan(TTP) suffered a major blow as a key player of the dialogue process , Major® Mohammad Amir, quit the dialogue process in protest against the ‘unabated media hype’ created by some members of the Taliban negotiating panel for ‘personal projection’ and ‘party agendas’ reports the newspaper. The report continued to share, “Making premature announcements about the release of prisoners and alleging that the government’s negotiators did not make demands for release of civilians held captive by militants may further damage the confidence-building measures.”
The news did not come as a surprise. Something like this was anticipated as pointed out in my op-ed published March 3, 2014. I had categorically pointed out the possibility of a media hype and its cascading effects, “The failure of recent talks may have been a result of b) Reporting of every ongoing step or lack of it in media, making rigidity of positions inevitable.”
We need to look at the picture here closely without taking pot shots at the media. The picture reflects certain facts. Fact one is that any media on commercial basis depends largely on advertising given to the channel. The reason I choose to focus more on the electronic medium of communication is simple. In today’s world, electronic media has emerged as the main opinion maker. In a country like Pakistan, with low literacy rate, television is not only accessible but viewed across the different income and education strata.
The competition between channels is vicious. Higher the viewing the higher the rating. Higher the rating, higher the commercial success and advertising benefits. The game revolves around finances, pure and simple. News has generally speaking become more sensationalized tailored to gain more viewers. A very interesting observation is the negligible difference in style between newspaper and television journalism in Pakistan. In newspaper writing, words must resurrect the happening for the readers. The written communication both in form of news and views must convey in words the details that cannot be shown in celluloid as on television. This style is suitable owing to the nature of the medium of communication. However, one observes the same style being followed on television whereas the viewer can see an event live or recorded. The viewer can see an event happening and can gage the enormity or impact of an event, the body language of participants so on and so forth. However, we see the newscaster translating the visual happening in great depth and detail that is unwarranted for the visual medium of communication.
When a news channel runs 24/7 it needs news to telecast. The over indulgence of “breaking news” whether or not it merits the label has become a norm. In case of any event happening, most channels will be in variance with each other in case of numbers reported of let’s say; casualties. In the hurry to release the news, verifying news may often be ignored. In order to generate interest of the public, checks by the organization based on comprehensive editorial policies is mandatory. Does the need of editorial policies get nudged out owing to a desire for increased ratings? Who suffers in the end?
This brings me to yet another question. Where do we teach media ethics to our journalists we expect them to practice? Yes, we teach it as a mandatory course as part of syllabus of Mass Communications but how many enter the field after a masters or a bachelor’s degree in the subject? How do they learn? The answer is they don’t. I quote from my book; ‘A Comparative Analysis of Media and Media Laws in Pakistan,’ from the chapter of electronic media, “There is a strong tendency by the media to reflect and keep on reflecting, thereby sensationalizing issues, till something juicier comes along, on murders, kidnappings, rapes. Showing the relatives of the victims beating their chest crying, wailing. This kind of news are sought and covered, not because of the national importance but because it is thought, it will attract better viewership. Poor coverage of important issues is another. Converting non-issues into issues unfortunately happens. Earlier, I had mentioned what is in public interest and what the public may want to see can be mutually exclusive of each other. The “real” issues take a hit and are often relegated to the back burner because “issues” that may be either non-issues or minor issues are promoted as “the” issues. If talk shows are being aired, incessantly, they would more often deal with petty bickering, screaming matches between opponents invited, also leading to colorful exchange of abuses, rather than policy matters or a constructive discussion.”
The purpose here is not to take pot shots at media. Not at all and I do beg your pardon if such an erroneous impression is created.
PEMRA Ordinance 2002, Clause 20 sub clause “(b) ensure preservation of the national, cultural, social and religious values and the principles of public policy as enshrined in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.” However, how do these ideals translate into the job description of a programme editor? Or a camera- man? Or a reporter? In the absence of any one to translate them either in form of an effective editorial policy and in the shape of training; it does not.
The important thing to understand is; greater freedom to voice opinion demands greater responsibility. Freedom to voice opinion world over is marked with certain universally acceptable limitations like hate speech, racism, defamation, copyrights, incitement to offence, obscenity, profanity, perjury, treason, invasion of privacy, abetting terrorism so on and so forth. There is nothing like an open ended cheque without any limitations. Freedom of expression, like any other liberty, brings with itself a very heavy responsibility, on the shoulders of all of those exercising that right and in particular upon those who are placed in positions to influence policies, impact and form public opinion. Free media; yes! But a responsible free media please.
William O. Douglas of the Supreme Court of the United States in the judgment of Beauharnais v. Illinois, 342 U.S. 250, 287 (1952) recorded, “The framers of the constitution knew human nature as well as we do. They too had lived in dangerous days; they too knew the suffocating influence of orthodoxy and standardized thought. They weighed the compulsions for restrained speech and thought against the abuses of liberty. They chose liberty.”
The writer is a lawyer, academic and political analyst. She has authored a book titled ‘A Comparative Analysis of Media & Media Laws in Pakistan.’ She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets at @yasmeen_9.
Published in Pakistan Today on 6/May/2014