The challenge of media freedom

Published: April 22, 2012

The writer is a senior journalist and works for Dawn News

There are various reasons for which the media is coming under increasing pressure from powerful groups, each pressing its own agenda, contracting the space for fair and balanced editorial judgment. The most obvious one is the issue of reach. Media, particularly news channels and now also private radio, are seen as platforms through which larger audience can be obtained in shorter time spans as compared with traditional and more restricted methods of message dissemination. An ordinary rally in Lahore or Karachi becomes national news when beamed across the nation. Imran Khan’s recent lament that the media does not cover his party events properly must be seen in the context of this ‘reach issue’. Obviously his party events, like any other party’s activity, have the support of the loyalists. So they are his target audience. Like everyone else in the field of politics, he wants to project the events and the activities of the party beyond his reach — and the media is the only platform to do it from. It is a valuable asset. You get ‘them’ on your side, and you command the realm.

The other issue is that of impact. The media can create and change perceptions. Used properly, it can be a master illusionist. Murderers and thugs can get a complete make-over when they are repeatedly introduced as ‘leaders’. Lies and deception can be paraded as service to democracy, and broad daylight plunder of resources can be hedged as ‘cost of building a strong democratic order’. These, and other such misleading statements that covered up crimes of the powerful, were spoken before as well. Indeed these attempts at sweetening poison have been the stock-in-trade of the practitioners of power politics since times immemorial. But the success of these tricks was limited; its impact was ephemeral.

With 24/7 news and infotainment outlets available, potentially, there are round-the-clock and endless chances of recycling myths and peddling untruths. But the potential is not just for playing up the negative: genuine agendas for change can also be kept in circulation every day of every week of every month of every year, and then year after year with much impact. Again to quote Imran Khan’s example, his deep frustration is also a reflection of his realisation that he can really fast-track change only if he gets the ‘coverage’ of his choice.

Some of the wrong choices exercised by owners, editors, news editors and field journalists in this exceedingly demanding environment has compounded the pressure on the media. Some have chosen the easy way out — aligning themselves with this or that group or its ideology. Whether out of fear, or personal preference, news and content flows in the media market are adjusted according to margins of profitability or promised benefits. Supping with the devil is now kosher. Brazenly censoring one type of criticism and nurturing another kind, is done all the time, without any remorse and it is called “editorial adjustment”. This makes life for those who are ‘unaligned’ very difficult. They get marked as the real problem by the powerful groups who now think that the buying of media loyalties and selling of their agendas is a legitimate practice, and that no one is above this trade.

The media business and media profession have both become difficult. You can lose billions if your product is blocked or get blacked out. Conversely, you can thrive and prosper if you play ball. Similarly, speaking the truth can get you killed. Or you can find yourself on the street the day you try to assert your editorial judgment. These strains have become the new instrument of media control and manipulation that all of us need to be wary of. The job of keeping our editorial freedom intact and our integrity beyond reproach has just begun in all earnest.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 23rd, 2012.

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Reader Comments (25)

  • anees
    Apr 22, 2012 - 9:59PM

    the partial role of media was clearly visible, media coverage of the Quetta rally was important for PTI but more so for passing the message across Pakistan dispelling separatist impression of Baluchees, a successful rally at quetta remained indifferent to the rest of the country,

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  • Aftab Kenneth Wilson
    Apr 22, 2012 - 10:05PM

    Freedom is good but if it becomes naked then it should be redressed. It is not media’s job to promote their own products of likings. Media should stop behaving like Lords Of The Rings. People are no longer kids. With the mushroom growth of media/anchorpersons now the viewers are also grown-up. It is now visible like daylight who is attached with whom. Both print and electronic media seems to be having their own agendas for their promoters. I watch all talk shows and read almost all leading news paper both published and aired in English and Urdu, including yours. If anchors starts behaving like trend setters then God Bless our country. Clear biased attitude is on its rise. You have perhaps forgot to mention any black sheep in your folds.People who are seconding others agendas can only be considered as ” Intellectual Prostitutes’. .

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  • Apr 22, 2012 - 10:12PM

    Dear Talat – very well written. I’d like to offer some comments/pointers for improvement of the media (to both the media and the regulator – PEMRA::
    Besides the pressures from powerful groups, the media needs to self-correct in a major and urgent fashion. Specifically, in the following areas:
    1) To not cover/show scenes of violence in a graphical and stressful fashion.
    2) To not cover/show political rallies in their entirety (or speeches of political leaders for hours).
    3) To have better standards on what is “Breaking News” (most of the times ridiculous events are reported as breaking news – and that too over and over again (with the flashiest of sound/animated engineering.
    4) Possibly – rating political talk shows as “Adult Programming” and moving them to a 10:00 pm and onwards time-slot.
    5 Crime shows and other reality shows that are very stressful, graphic in their topics – be also rated as “Adult Programming” and moved to the 10:00 pm and onwards (late night) hours.
    6) This one is more ideological – the media should stop using names of politicians (specifically those who hold office) and only mention their official title – in other words in the future names of the President, PM, CMs, Governors, Portfolio Ministers will not be mentioned – only their title will be mentioned (such as: Minister for Finance said xxx). This will take out the glamor and icon making allure from politics.

    I can go and on – but the above suggestions are to move the media with its new found freedom and power – to a better plain -than where it is now. But there is an Urgency in the media’s need to self-correct – otherwise it may do more damage than helping the citizens of Pakistan.

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  • Apr 22, 2012 - 10:12PM

    Tallat is right in his analysis. This is not the extremists only who create problems. The so called Inqilabis are even worst. Ask few questions from Imran and then gauge the response. Today he was criticizing PMLN for election boycott but Qurshi, Tareen, Hashmi, Laghars and now a days his 90 percent Tehreek took part in elections. Ask him the question and he will be fiercest than Taliban.His 90 percent arguments are vague, weak and out of context but media still gives him too much weigtht.

    Hypocrisy at their best and this is the political culture in Pakistan. I admire that people like Tallat still are holding the flag of professionalism and intellectual integrity.

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  • Umer
    Apr 22, 2012 - 10:20PM

    The job of keepin­g our editor­ial
    freedo­m intact and our integr­ity
    beyond reproa­ch has just begun in all
    earnes­t.

    You are implying integrity has not already been sold. Bit of a stretch, no?

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  • Apr 22, 2012 - 10:41PM

    saw glimpses of Noam Chomski :P

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  • Ashar
    Apr 22, 2012 - 10:57PM

    I think it is only because of the extensive commercialization of the media that we see clear cut bias in the editorials most of the times. And I believe it is very hard to keep it unbias. What required is to make some common protocols based in mutual respect, modesty, and nationalistic approach which may be strictly observed throughout the media.

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  • Fahad
    Apr 22, 2012 - 11:31PM

    A very insightful, straight and openly frank piece of writing by Talat Sir about the new media that ran along the lines of ideological associations, personal affiliations and is more concerned with ratings and viewership and to get maximum out of the news via sensitization and spicing things up. The real test of and independent, impartial and objective journalists comes into play here if he can over come all these hurdles and present the news with as objectivity as it is humanly possible for them.

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  • Pro Bono Publico
    Apr 23, 2012 - 12:05AM

    @Umer:
    Before criticising others, Talat needs to look at his own newspaper: It was simply shameful the way the ET maligned Lord Nazir Ahmed,which led to his suspension the Labour Party. And the big-hearted ET published a tiny apolgy.

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  • Abid P Khan
    Apr 23, 2012 - 12:11AM

    @Muhammad Saqib Tanveer:
    “saw glimpses of Noam Chomski :P”

    You mean something beyond IK, an ex-cricketer’s, comprehension?

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  • Subah
    Apr 23, 2012 - 3:32AM

    “Like every one else in the field of politics, he wants to project the events and the activities of the party beyond his reach”
    Well, you already mentioned “like everyone in the field of politics” then why do we always single him out. Why is Imran Khan always being criticized. WHy are we so stereotyped to accept a new era, a change. Besides if others are doing the same, then why are they not targeted this much. We are trying him the first time. How can we make predictions about him. His predecesors have been in power for quite some time now, we are sure about what they can do and how much they can deliver. Have they not spoken and projected their party beyond their reach?
    The truth, Sir, is that we, especially the media is afraid. and as is our habit, we are afraid even to admit that we are afraid. I won’t name the souce of our fear though.
    People are not stupid, they can see that the mamoth rallies Imran has had are not being portrayed in the true sense. They are given importance only if slight chaotic scene develops like people running away with chairs etc, then of course it is highlighted. As regards the recent jalsa at Quetta, The size doesnt matter (even though it was a huge success) but the spirit did matter and BRAVO for the National Anthem and the bravery.
    Criticism should be equal for all. ANd we should have the courage to appreciate what is right rather than always finding loopholes.

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  • Shahzad
    Apr 23, 2012 - 7:37AM

    Is it an illusion that Urdu media is less free then English media or is it that their hearts beat to different drums

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  • Umer
    Apr 23, 2012 - 8:11AM

    @Pro Bono Publico:

    Several media outlets reported on Lord Ahmad (search for relevant Memri translation). ET was actually quite mild. According to CNN report ET reporter still stands by his story claiming that several other people also heard Lord Ahmad say it.

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  • A Peshawary
    Apr 23, 2012 - 10:27AM

    Nice to read a good advice to media from someone who belongs to today’s media. This is a soul searching opportunity for the stakeholders of the big(HUGE) mraket, please read it between the lines.
    One can only pray for the right things in this opportunits’ word all accross the board; politicians and media groups are no exception.

    A Peshawary

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  • Apr 23, 2012 - 11:59AM

    Media has become a mafia in itself. More pressing matters are the ugly face which exploits with people emotions in wake of national tragedies. It is more of a concern than some influence with politics.

    http://wp.me/pQt9O-2e

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  • UseIt
    Apr 23, 2012 - 12:10PM

    Do I need to remind how a newspaper in Pakistan published a photograph of Nawaz Sharif sympathising with young girls in the ‘Missing Persons’ camp – the girls weren’t even related to any of the missing people. The mother came on prime time to reveal that her children were forced by the media team to get their picture taken. The newspaper had to come up with an official apology for failing to comply to the code of conduct.

    Why is Talat portraying the media as pressure susceptible 2 year old babies?

    No one forces them to be maligned by politicians, it’s an option they accept whole heartedly.

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  • usmani
    Apr 23, 2012 - 3:55PM

    Nice to hear Talat -a member of the media,talking only about the pressure group–those political group who threats for the coverage of their choice.What about the groups who demand the news of their liking by the lure of money.Do the media is not susceptible to this group.And what about the group which offers in dollar.Could we also hear about them.

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  • waqar
    Apr 23, 2012 - 4:21PM

    Good write,only thing i dont like is singling out of Imran Khan. How easy is to target one peaceful political party WHO just demand a fare coverage in the media and WHO is trying to break status quo.i think its a problem within the media that need to be addressed rather than blaming the external pressures.why a Local party in Karachi gets more coverage than rest of national parties? A question for media.

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  • Lobster
    Apr 23, 2012 - 5:03PM

    Besides, media organizations should be under law to make public their financial statements, so one knows where the money is being pumped in and if they pay tax (highly unlikely)

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  • Zoaib
    Apr 23, 2012 - 5:42PM

    Talat, good analysis. What the viewer demands though is only BALANCE and nothing more. So whether one party is lying or the other is pushing an agenda of CHANGE, it doesn’t matter as long as both points of view are reaching the common man through the media.

    I would also like you to discuss the role that money and advertisements (especially by the government) may play in favor or against a party. Also, discuss the role of the media group owners as judging from discussions they seem to be pretty vulnerable to influence by vested interests (and some have close links with political party heads etc. as well).

    Lastly, about Imran Khan, you’re right he knows the importance of the media in driving the national agenda in today’s Pakistan (having said multiple times media is responsible for awareness among the people today) but he’s hardly asked for anything more than fair coverage. I still remember the PTI Islamabad Jalsa (on 13th August 2011) which was completely wiped out from both electronic and print media even though it was an unprecedented gathering in Islamabad.

    I guess the thing to discuss is why does the “free” media tend to have a tilt towards the parties in government as compared to parties in opposition and whether this stems from the immense government resources available to the former.

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  • sardar
    Apr 23, 2012 - 6:42PM

    dear tallat hussain if i recognise as specialist anybody in electronic media that is you, as you seems to be professional in approach and patriotic Pakistani.Agree with all what you said and comments from Pakistan well wisher.As typical Pakistani again we all are criticizing and knowingly fully the problems of our society, do you not think that their should be solution to it,in my point of view the country like Pakistan need debates for solution but we as nation are watching what media is projecting in their top night shows stage dramas.To be precise i think there is need to have well educated i.e,Phd (Dr) in IR who should be allowed to hold talk shows becoz they are the people who are making the policy of the nation by intruding the mind of ppls.But at present the selection criteria is somewhat different either should be gud looking for ladies selection to attract audience r who can make the guest to fight well.Secondly their should be a Medai Screening rules passed by Supreme court to control this.so that that differentiate what breaking news is,where some one privacy hurt,whose words are beneficial for the ppl and are covered.

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  • Apr 23, 2012 - 7:28PM

    well written, u r the only unbiased man in the media

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  • Muhammad
    Apr 23, 2012 - 10:11PM

    just wordering can any one provide impact on ratings, advert pulling by marketing after the the news channels shoved camera into to the faces of greving relatives of the air crash.

    I think there is direct corelation? can any industry insider confirm deny?

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  • Aqua28
    Apr 25, 2012 - 12:39PM

    @ Dear Talat, Its very important topic to discuss as media should feel its responsibility of what they are showing on TV. It’s a mass media actually so irrespective of gender, age and sect, they just publish the news which impact in same way and on bigger canvas Media can play much better role in this arena as they got chance to build a new Pakistan but I am very sad to share that media do not feeling its responsibilities. In Europe, we talk about Fox News and here we have many channels like that which only believe that issues need to be highlighted in a spicy manner.
    We humbly request, that at least highlight the positivity in the society. Here are few of my suggestions;

    Train your reporters that what questions need to be asked in which manner?
    Add informative programs as much as they can.
    Present our culture for this youth NOT to indulge outsider’s culture in us.
    There are lot more issues to discuss in this society, but not the Cat Walks. As people are struggling for cloth, food and shelter here, they can’t afford this luxury.
    Improve the morning shows as it should be a lighter stuff early morning, do not need dances on Indian songs and marriage arrangements in which actors need to practice dance for themselves.
    Encourage the real stars of this nation not the fake ones.

    This is all what I have in my mind. Later I will share more.
    Regards,

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  • Limka Ronak
    Apr 25, 2012 - 7:33PM

    You are right when you say ‘with 24/7 news and infotainment outlets available, potentially, there are round-the-clock and endless chances of recycling myths and peddling untruths.’
    Pakistan media needs to work really hard here as mostly media outlets leave all ethics behind just to feed their 24/7 holes…

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