Media the world over has always been perceived by both its practitioners and its consumers as a mission with public service seen as its main preoccupation.
However, over time, market has seemingly overwhelmed the mission. Media’s thirst for profits seems to have become unquenchable and its craving for setting political, social and economic agenda of societies in which it functions insatiable. In the process, the all important plank – public trust – from which the media draws its authority and influence seems disappearing fast.
No doubt, media needs to earn enough to finance its professional obligations such as gathering news from far and near, tasting and testing it for its veracity, turning it into consumable product and then making it available to the largest number of consumers. In this context money-making becomes a legitimate endeavour. But profiteering at the cost of the very soul of media seems to have become the norm.
The current media scene in Pakistan is being viewed by many who practise it and also by those who are its discerning consumers as highly worrisome with regard to media’s declining professional standards and its perceived unethical practices. In fact a fairly widespread national debate on the subject has ensued both within and outside media organisations. And two senior media persons have gone to the Supreme Court for a ruling on the ongoing scandal-mongering involving a number of well-known media persons accused of being on the take.
But this scene is just a colour remake of a sordid black and white flop of yesteryears. And the colour piece has seemingly surpassed the original in grubbiness. To understand this darkly revolting copy of the original one needs to take a quick look-see at the performance of the print media, the precursor of the electronic version in the country over the last 65 years.
The print media had remained under virtual lock and key for almost 55 years, thanks largely to the Press and Publication Ordinance of 1963. During this period as press freedom was on a forced sabbatical the fortunes of press owners multiplied multimillion-fold, not because of circulation or advertisement revenue but because of duty-free imported newsprint quota, tax evasion and other kinds of official partonage.
Most media organisations while they were racking in their unearned millions, their staff was (and is) working in sweatshop environment. Most did not (and do not even today) issue appointment letters to their staffers. Some media organisations, in order to escape the employment laws of the land used to (and some do it even today) hire their journalists from employment agencies functioning outside the wage board purview. In some media houses salaries were (are) not paid for months. District reporters are issued by many media houses the so-called press cards. The mutual understanding is, the reporter would not expect any salary from the media organisation and the latter would look the other way even if the former was (is) using the press card for blackmailing purposes. There are a couple of exceptions to this rule.
Successive governments manipulated the media owners at will using the carrot and stick methods. In fact, the media owners entered into an unholy collusion with every government, no matter what kind.
Lists of working journalists allegedly on the take would also appear frequently when the government of the day or the media owners wanted to undermine the credibility of targeted journalists. This is not to absolve the working journalists completely. A number of our colleagues have known to have been in the pay of successive governments. But the irony is, never ever have these people been exposed by those who had been (are) their paymasters.
The ISI proactively joined the game at the time of the first Afghan war. With its pockets overflowing with the US dollars the ISI managed to buy off many of our colleagues and many they simply brainwashed and these media persons promoted the so-called Afghan jihad sponsored by the Americans as the genuine jihad. And today some of us either because they genuinely believe in it or have been paid to promote the idea are calling the war against the phenomenon of Muslims killing Muslims as America’s war.
At the time of independence there were four major newspaper houses—the Dawn group, the Pakistan Times Group, the Nawa-i-Waqat Group and the Jang Group. Three have survived, while Pakistan Times group fell victim to the government takeover and could only last on the National Press Trust (NPT) ventilator until about 1994. Dawn being an English language newspaper could take liberties with its readership (presumably educated) only in a limited way. So, professionally the newspaper developed on a relatively sound foundation. Nawa-i-Waqat group was driven by what it claimed to be the so-called Pakistan ideology and it still adheres to this ideology. The Jang group has always been driven by the market and it still is. And all those who opened their eyes following the so-called liberalisation of the media in 2002 too have emulated the Jang/Geo group. They keep on breathing down the neck of the group in the lead and the latter ups the ante by crossing one more hurdle in the ethical code and professional bar so as to keep its lead and in the process a mad, mad media race has ensued.
All attempts to bring some kind of order in the circus have failed because the owners have come to believe that if they are making so much loot by doing what they are doing then they must be doing something right and do not need anybody to tell them how to run their business. Again this is not something new. Even before the advent of private TV channels, the two groups – Nawa-i-Waqat and Jang – never allowed any agreed code of ethics to be set. Each one followed its own code and the one which sold its soul to the market kept winning the race.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 5th, 2012.