See No Evil, Hear No Evil And Speak No Evil
PM Imran Khan recently said he has stopped reading newspapers due to ‘negative coverage’ of his government. Muhammad Ziauddin argues that before assuming power, PTI promised media freedom. But after winning the elections and taking over the reins of the government the ruling party seems to have completely abandoned this part of its manifesto as it came face to face with the probing nature of democracy’s fourth pillar.
Imran Khan, an international cricket celebrity and a world-famous social worker with a stunningly handsome face recognized almost the world over had remained a darling of the world media, especially that of the national one, over the last 40 years, but after having been installed in the seat of power he seems to have started perceiving the media as his foe.
And on Thursday last, the PM actually gave vent to his feelings, saying that he has stopped reading morning newspapers and watching evening chat shows on TV due to extreme negativity targeted at him in the media. He made these shocking observations during a breakfast session (at the World Economic Forum in Davos) aimed at showcasing his vision for Pakistan and its economic potential before the global business leaders as well as overseas Pakistanis.
Before analyzing these uncalled-for observations of the PM, let us see what he promised the Pakistani media before coming to power. The following are some selected quotes from the chapter on media in the PTI’s election manifesto:
“We are committed to maintaining a vigorous free media, which will evolve its own rules to ensure responsible journalism both in the electronic and print media.”
“We will ensure laws for timely implementation of Wage Board decisions and for ensuring that media houses pay journalists their salaries and bonuses on a regular and timely basis. We will also ensure that media owners provide insurance, training and protective cover for their journalists working in conflict zones in particular and in the field in general.”
“PEMRA will be made autonomous so it does not become a political tool in the hands of any government to target the freedom of the electronic media.”
“Government advertisement will be rationalised and not be made a tool to harass or bribe the independent media.”
“PBC and PTV will be made autonomous with their own Board of Governors similar to the BBC model.”
However, after winning the elections and taking over the reins of the government the ruling party seems to have completely abandoned this part of its election manifesto and went to the other side of the fence all the way, as it came face to face with the realities of governance and the probing nature of democracy’s fourth pillar.
Within two months of settling down in the power corridors, the PTI-led coalition government proposed the draft of the infamous Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) law which read more like a complete negation of the ruling party’s pledges made in its election manifesto with regard to the media freedom.
The objectives of the proposed authority appeared to be media control rather than media regulation. More likely those who prepared the draft in question were dictated by dictatorial desires rather than democratic aspirations.
The most questionable provision of the draft ordinance related to the ‘power of the federal government to issue directives. It said: “The federal government may, from time to time, issue directives to the authority on matters of policy. The directives may be issued with regard to the matters relating to Article 19 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. If a question arises whether any matter is a matter of policy, the decision of the federal government shall be final.”
This provision allowed the government of the day to violate Article 19 with complete impunity by classifying any matter as a ’matter of policy’ that would undermine its own vested political interest or exposed its policy errors and blunders. Authorities are known to have put pressure on enterprising investigative journalists and their potential sources using such special laws against them.
Reporting on terrorism also means reporting on counter-terrorism and on the way the conduct of the police, the intelligence services, and the judiciary as well. And the last thing the authorities want is an exposé of their failings, incompetence or turf wars inside the ‘state security apparatus.’ Too often, secrecy is being used not to protect legitimate national security interests but to hide official blunders or even illegal actions from the eyes of the public. Unjustified cover-ups and suppression of truth regarding crucial questions of public accountability have proven to have seriously damaged the process of democracy.
Mercifully, this proposal seems to have been filed after the media kicked up high pitched protests.
In another attempt to tightened controls over the media, PM Khan directed all the ministries/divisions and attached departments to comply with the centralized policy of issuing government advertisements to the print and electronic media only through the Press Information Department (PID). This would mean a stricter control over ads by the state in order to micromanage their distribution, favoring ‘friends’ and punishing ‘foes’.
And according to a recent Pakistan Media Freedom Report 2019 by the Council of Pakistan Newspaper, mysterious and unidentified actors are posing the biggest threat to press freedom, followed by non-state elements and outlawed militant groups. The media as a whole is at the receiving end of a sustained campaign that seeks to micromanage how news stories are handled, which topics/events are covered and which ones are dropped.
TV channels are temporarily taken off air for broadcasting press conferences by out-of-favor politicians, news anchors ordered not to offer opinions on talk shows, not even their own. Media outlets have seen their revenue streams choked, circulation disrupted through strong-arm methods, threats of violence hurled by ‘participants’ at manufactured protests, etc.
Media is a public service industry and truth being its main output — while it is constantly tested for quality at the bar of its credibility and integrity — needs all the freedom required to make the commodity available to the general public without fear or favor. And that too in the larger public interest.
Given the peculiar socio-cultural, politico-economic and security conditions of a society in which the media industry functions, and also given the dynamism of each of these conditions that continuously keep pushing the boundary walls, the industry cannot be forced to abide by a straightjacketed code of ethics. In plain words, what is taboo for media today could be kosher tomorrow.
Considering the evolving dynamism of the platforms, from notice boards to newspapers to broadcast media to social media to smartphones, and with information technology merging with telecom technologies, a static media code of ethics would only cause wasteful, counterproductive and harmful news traffic jams.
The best course, therefore, is to leave it to the media industry to keep evolving a code of ethics of its own, dictated continuously by the constant changes occurring in the code of ethics governing a society. And since its quality is tested at the bar of its integrity and credibility, media organisations worth their name, in their own self-interest, would try not to digress or transgress from their main public service role of seeking the truth, and nothing but the truth.
And in case of any serious digression or transgression, the industry could be subjected to the existing laws of the land. There is no need for introducing special laws to discipline the media.
Our print media is being regulated by the Pakistan Press Council (PPC) and broadcast media by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA). However, since both these bodies are not legally autonomous but are the line departments of the information ministry which in turn is part of the government of the day, they function at the whims of the latter and not in the best interest of the nation at large. That is perhaps why directives issued by these regulatory bodies are often challenged by the media. Since it is the information ministry that controls these bodies, governments tend to manipulate them to promote their own political interests through them or misuse them to undermine those of the opposition.
Therefore, to make them truly autonomous regulatory authorities, a bipartisan parliamentary committee could constitute executive boards (EBs) comprising members representing a cross-section of society. The EBs could appoint CEOs for each body on pure merit with the latter answerable to the EBs which in turn will be answerable to the bipartisan parliamentary committee which would be accountable to parliament.
The same system could be followed for the release of the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) and Pakistan Television Corporation (PTVC) from government controls. Truly autonomous PBC and PTVC headed by CEOs chosen by their respective boards on merit would serve as peer pressure as well on private sector broadcast media to keep it within the societal limits of the day.
The author is a senior journalist and editor.