Media freedoms versus responsibility (holy cow syndrome)

Published in The News

Much has been said about media accountability and the dire need of a regulation framework for Pakistan’s new power centre. Pakistani media has earned its freedom and independence after a long, often bloody, struggle against military dictators and civilian autocrats. Countless journalists were imprisoned, harassed, even killed in this decade’s long fight for free speech, otherwise a much-touted fundamental right in every Pakistani constitution. There is no question that a viable democracy and a culture of accountability cannot exist without a robust and independent media.

Globalisation and the rise of electronic media in Pakistan, ironically under General Musharraf, is a relatively new phenomenon and has changed the contours of power matrix in the country. If anything, electronic media and its older cousin, the print media, with a plethora of columnists, are now an established group with considerable influence and nuisance value. Actualisation of the newly acquired powers was best demonstrated during the anti-Musharraf movement from 2007-2008. This was a startling development and pleased most Pakistanis as they found the echo of their daily trials and tribulations in the direct and frank reporting by the numerous TV channels.
Ambiguous regulatory framework: The sudden liberalisation of private television channels took place in an environment when a regulatory framework had barely been established. The Pakistani Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) came into existence during an unrepresented regime and, therefore, it lacked the essential process of consultation, ownership, and national consensus. On the one hand, media oligarchies emerged despite the vague announcements that cross ownership would not be permitted. On the other hand, electronic media showed little interest in developing a common code of conduct and finding ways of self-regulation. The results and the initial phase were disasters. Human limbs and heads found ample air time thereby glorifying terrorism and violence, and impacting the collective psychology of the viewers through a gradual process of desensitisation. Furthermore, objectivity was thrown out of the window and partisan, one sided rants became the order of the day.

Lawyers and media alliance: This was a type of intense civil activism and unprecedented representation of the Pakistani middle class in mainstream politics. Seemingly, a momentous development, the foresighted mobilization, came into public domain regurgitating the ‘anti-politics’ biases of Pakistan’s conservative middle class. This automatically resulted in severe distortions of the political expression. The first rule of law was personified by a handful of judges who had been linked to Pakistan’s regressive establishment throughout their careers; and a misconception that rule of law would lead to political, economic, and social transformation became a ‘truth’. Minority voices such as this scribe, alerted to the inherent contradictions of these developments. In short, intra-bourgeoisie struggles could be disruptive but rarely led to transformative social change. The results today are clear. The lawyers are beating up every public official and media representative who attempts to question their activities. After heroic battles the conduct of judges has been called into question.

Holy-cow syndrome: Pakistan’s security establishment returned as the holy cow. Anyone who ventured to challenge the predominance of the national security apparatus was immediately branded as unpatriotic and a new divine to rule was crafted by the nefarious Generals: Musa, Ayub, Yahya, Zia and later Musharraf. These ‘saviours’ took the reins of power with identical intentions and left the country in a huge mess. General Ziaul Haq, during his eleven-year rule (1977-88) tops the list of willful destroyers of Pakistani society. Ironically, the holy cow status of Pakistan army was shaken under General Musharraf and the street agitation of 2007 in which Pakistan army was challenged in its recruitment grounds i.e, the Punjab. This was the turning point of our history. However, due to the uncertain commitment to democracy by Pakistan’s chattering classes and the upwardly mobile segments this grand moment of political course correction was squandered by the emergence of two other holy cows: the Judiciary and the media.

Purist discourse:
Such has been the trajectory of the national affairs that any objective or independent comment on the two new holy cows is instantaneously construed as an attack on these arguably vital institutions of polity. For instance, judges are very much part of the Pakistani mainstream. Therefore, their decisions in a free society are open to academic and reasoned comment. However, we have witnessed the unfortunate trend of complete deification of the superior court judges by media activists. Similarly, any informed or well-meaning comment on media transgressions has been greeted by the same fate.

More of the same: Thus far, the two established trends in Pakistan, anti-politician rhetoric and glorification of religion continue to remain in the ascendant in public discourse. Until the Pakistan army decided to fight the Taliban in the North West and the FATA, the media on balance glorified the so called resistance of warriors to the infidel Western imperialism. This came as a major blow to the moderate politics espoused by Pakistan People’s Party and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz). Concurrently, the vilification of the politicians from 2008 to the present is a major pastime of the media and now the judiciary on the fake degrees issue.

Partisan politics and media: In light of the above-mentioned developments, the media has been consistently in awe of the changed priorities of PML-N in terms of supporting the lawyers and judges’ movement and the allied media freedoms given that General Musharraf resorted to censorship and a brute crackdown in November 2007.

President Zardari was a hero until he played the media-lawyers game and thereafter with his wavering commitment to the judges’ issue he overnight turned into the worst thing that happened to Pakistan. Such was the nature of media hysteria, which Zardari and Musharraf were bracketed in the same category without any understanding of Pakistan’s history, the fragility of its democratic dispensation and the principle of objectivity in reporting and analysis. Dates of Zardari’s ouster and a bloody end were announced with impunity. All this while, the PML-N remained the preferred choice of our daring activists. This honeymoon ended with the issue of fake degrees.

Demolishing the politician:
Fake degrees of several legislators is now the hottest news item and yet another opportunity to malign democracy. Over a hundred and fifty legislators at various levels are reported to have submitted fake degrees to the Election Commission in 2008. The debate, however, has provided the ammunition to deride the entire political class for being immoral, unfit to govern by ahistorical TV presenters and civic activists. They have conveniently forgotten that many of these fake degree holders were creatures of the establishment, responding to unjust laws and banished by the military and the judiciary time and again. In fact, there is no crisis as bye-elections can resolve the issue. But the hysteria around this fact was so intense that the legislators with proper degrees also felt offended and had to strike back.’

Punjab Assembly resolution: In this context, the provincial assembly passed a resolution with consensus chiding the irresponsible sections of the media. Evidently, there was nothing wrong with a particular view of the politicos but soon this resolution turned into a moralistic and heated debate with the journalists protesting over the impending censorship. No such action was either announced or deliberated by the elected governments. This was a particular view, which could have been countered through reasoned debate and rational discourse. But emotionalism held sway and within a few days the same assembly had to undo this resolution and pass another resolution that favoured the media.

Many pertinent questions have arisen from this conduct of journalists as well as the legislators. The political parties have to display more scrutiny and devise ways of achieving internal accountability. The media at its end has to work towards self-regulation and setting a code of conduct. It should be reiterated that freedom of media is linked to democratic development. By tarnishing the image of civilian politicians and diminishing the trust in democracy the media would be doing a big disservice to its future and credibility.

Three important policy imperatives must be kept in view. Electronic and print media have to work quickly towards a regulatory framework. The state should have nothing to do with this process and it should remain within the realm of the media. Political parties must also show restraint while engaging with media and they should demonstrate that their internal processes are transparent and rule-based. Finally, media barons and owners of newspapers must ensure that the media does not become another interest group like the lawyers fluent in occasional violence and drunk on moral superiority.

The writer is a policy expert, writer and editor based in Lahore

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