Power to the media

There should be more accountability on what media report and how media report it

Kamal Siddiqi November 16, 2014

This week at a seminar in Hyderabad, I was asked an interesting question. “Do you think if the police and media become honest, our country will become a better place?” I was stumped for an answer.

Another question asked whether the media should be more active in causes and whether they are playing an active enough role on certain issues. I replied that the media cannot be part of activism. As the fourth estate, the media should sit on one side and see and report what is happening in an impartial manner.

It is difficult to understand how the Pakistani media has transformed over the years. My Sri Lankan friend Ranga Kalansooriya and his Pakistani colleague Adnan Rehmat who both work for IMS, a media-related-NGO, want to take training of journalists to the grassroots level. But that is easier said than done.

Figures gathered by Adnan Rehmat suggest that the media has exploded over the past ten years in terms of number of outlets as well as the number of working journalists. How many actually want to report truthfully, I wonder.

And with the rise in journalists, now almost all journalist bodies have been divided on the basis of ideology. For some journalists, by the way, money is also an ideology.

It is difficult to instill a sense of discipline and accountability in a profession which enjoys unparalleled powers and is a great equalizer. Journalists come from a variety of backgrounds in Pakistan, speak different languages, follow different ideologies and set multiple agendas.

Anyone can be a journalist. Whether they have a degree or not is beside the point. One should have news sense, contacts, the ability to write and have the courage to work in the most trying circumstances at times.

Contrary to popular belief, most journalists are not in the profession to make money. And if they are, then it’s a case of poor judgment. Very few have made it big and in most instances those that have, have done so on the basis of some very questionable media practices.

While we defend the freedom of the press, we also need to work towards media accountability. In the ratings war, many journalists get carried away and report half-truths apart from sensationalizing the most trivial things.

But there is more. If a survey was carried out today amongst the people of Pakistan, possibly journalists would fare poorly.

And yet that is one side of the coin. The other side shows us those brave reporters and copyeditors who continue to write and report despite all the pressures imposed on them.

Take for example the trying conditions in which journalists work in Balochistan. Or the conditions of work in the tribal areas. Pay is low, risk is high. It would only take someone who is mad to do this job. And there are those who do it.

There are readers who would remember the times of General Zia when the only source of accurate information was the BBC Urdu service. Now as times have changed, the BBC tries to reinvent itself to remain relevant. Mark Tully was a household name in Pakistan. Not any more.

I remember when Javed Jabbar was made minister for information in the first Benazir government and how he transformed the dull and drab PTV into something exciting and relevant. He lost his job because of that but it was worth it.

Now in this time of information explosion, we have too much to go through. We need to sift fact from fiction and also make sense of what is being given to us. Make no mistake, there is still a lot of censorship in the media even today.

The only difference is that given the number of media outlets as well as the constant pressure of the social media, it is difficult to kill a story any more. Now the most that we can do is give a spin to it.

In conclusion, yes, was my answer. While I found it somewhat unfair to compare the media to the police, although my editor Imran Aslam once said that journalists are the only people who take bhatta from the police, I think yes the media needs to be reformed somewhat.

There should be more accountability on what we report and how we report it. The question now is – who will bell the cat?

Published in The Express Tribune, November 17th, 2014.

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