This is one of the problems of a society where we talk about democracy and criticise the government day in and day out, but when it comes to tolerating criticism on us we retaliate. Perhaps the democrat in us is not even skin deep
Spending two-and-a-half days with about 200 journalists from all over the country and listening to a star collection of experts, intellectuals and four national leaders is a treat no journalist can decline. The treat was offered by the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) keeping up its tradition to provide such forums a few times a year. The discussion was around issues related to media, democracy and governance.
Such intellectually stimulating discussions are a columnist’s delight, because in this country old issues die hard and hence force a current affairs writer to repeat him/herself, much to the boredom of the readers. Television talk show hosts could have also picked up a number of issues and some new faces for discussion from there, if they had given any importance to the meet.
Anyway, let me share what was my take from the conference on a number of issues raised by working journalists. What is good about some of the SAFMA conferences and meetings is that it is one of the few journalists’ forums where some soul-searching is done. The media in Pakistan is rightly sensitive about its freedom, as it has been acquired through a long struggle. So if there is any criticism on the media’s performance from the government, political parties and establishment, there is a strong reaction and it is summarily rejected. I think this knee-jerk reaction of the media to criticism is because our freedom is newfound and the fear of curbs on the media still lurks in us.
The most important issue is that in Pakistan freedom of expression is limited. Free discussion on many religious and ethnic issues is not allowed, which means that media freedom is not complete, although many people think that some people in the media are at times transgressing the limits of this freedom and are playing a negative role. The truth is that there are still some strong-arm tactics used by the moral police and religious extremists groups to get disproportionate coverage or to suppress the voices against them. For instance Farzana Ali, Aaj TV Bureau Chief Peshawar, pointed out that while a minute-to-minute day long commentary was given about the funeral of a political leader, the story of 68 people who died a day earlier in terrorist attacks was underplayed.
The government tactics against its critics include the traditional slashing down the advertisement share of such media organisations and letting the tax investigators take on tax evasion cases against the targeted media group. On the other hand, many media groups also live in glass houses, so when they cast a stone on the powerful political forces they retaliate — and quite often not with grace. Take the example of the PPP jiyalas blaming a media group for being Indian agents because they have launched a peace initiative. Now this is contrary to their own party’s policy, which wants better relations with India. President Zardari had the courage to say that India is not our enemy and had to face the consequences as the establishment unleashed its resources against him. But his jiyalas are not in tune with him. They have a right to criticise the media for biased coverage, but should not stoop so low.
It was this biased coverage of President Zardari by a section of the media that persuaded him to open his address to the SAFMA participants with ‘friends and foes’. My friend Afzal Khan criticised him for this opening. M Ziauddin in his opening remarks delivered before the president reminded him that the “government and media” in all democracies “have an adversarial role”. The other phrase commonly and frequently used in the conference was that the “media is a watchdog”, which has to highlight whatever is going wrong. That is right but that is not all. My view is that this is only half the role of the media anywhere in the world. Other equally important roles of a responsible media are: an opinion-maker; provider of unbiased information; remaining objective by rising above the ethnic, religious, sectarian, class and national biases while reporting and commenting. It is also the role of the media to present the right perspective of what is happening in society.
Interestingly, Information Minister Qamaruz Zaman Kaira and Maulana Fazlur Rehman mentioned the perspective issue in detail. Both the leaders reasoned with journalists in their address that the media with the perspective of time and space should evaluate the evolution of the democratic system in Pakistan. This is a valid point because the political and social structure of a society is directly co-related to its means and relations of production — level of development.
Khaled Ahmed, who is one of the few intellectuals keeping track of the media’s performance, in his well-argued paper did criticise the media for its excesses. He analysed the role of the ‘talk-show anchors’ in the electronic media. But unfortunately some of the anchors did not take the criticism in its right spirit. This is one of the problems of a society where we talk about democracy and criticise the government day in and day out, but when it comes to tolerating criticism on us we retaliate. Perhaps the democrat in us is not even skin deep. An open-minded journalist has to take criticism positively and should not indulge in labelling the critics as agents of the government. No senior journalist can deny that recklessly written stories or giving judgments on unproven charges are published/broadcast. It is the good fortune of the media that libel laws are not invoked by the people who are charged in the media trial because at the end of the day even if the victim is right, he/she loses so much in reputation during the trial that a favourable judgment cannot repair it. The government should activate the independent press and electronic media councils at its earliest. This is in the interest of the profession and the government itself. On the other hand, professionals in the media should welcome internal debates as it provides us an opportunity to improve ourselves, which is needed to keep the power of the media in check.
The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) secretary general was bold in criticising media houses who are not paying their journalists decent salaries, for blocking the wage-board awards, for not providing insurance cover and training journalists who cover conflict areas and lay down their lives, and for laying off hundreds of workers at short notice without compensation and for not paying wages on time. All this was part of the conference, which represented the participants’ mood and commitment; hence the table stories to undermine its importance were examples of poor journalistic quality. Still I would defend the right of the conference critics to express themselves to the death.
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