In our time, almost all of us – indeed all of us – have come across some piece of writing, some photograph, some television image that has riveted us. In many cases, it has affected us deeply and for a long period of time.
Those who are older can remember the images from Saigon as people clung to US helicopters as troops fled the city. These images come back to mind, as we see what has happened recently in Kabul. There are many other examples. The story of the Watergate scandal and the tapes uncovered by two journalists, whose names stand out in the world of journalism is unlikely to be forgotten for a very long period of time. And of course, there are other pieces of journalistic work by men such as Michael Moore, and many, many others that have influenced the world, changed it in some ways, and had a deep impact on our lives.
We have seen such work in Pakistan too. Over the years, investigative journalists have engaged in excellent work, sometimes for the local press and television channels, at other times for international ones. We often forget the stories broken by these men and increasingly a larger number of women with enormous courage and enormous skill, working against all kinds of odds.
Journalists, notably in the former tribal areas, have been killed for their determination to get to the heart of the story and tell the real tale as it happened. There are countless examples also of articles and stories which have shaken people and forced them to think a little harder about the world we live in. We have seen newspaper reports, television news stories and investigative reports that have changed lives.
Sadly, investigative journalism and even quality journalism in its true sense in both the print and electronic media is becoming rarer. It is unfair to suggest that this is the fault of journalists themselves. Even those deprived of sufficient training and sufficient knowhow have in the past often picked up the skills to turn into excellent reporters and excellent producers or filmmakers, in their various fields of specialisation. We all know of such stories.
The decline in professional journalism has been led by the decline in professionalism within the profession as a whole. Professional editors have vanished, making it more difficult to put up the posts which should be in place to check the content quality and truth behind news, so that what goes out to the public is as fair and as realistic as is possible. This is a difficult task in the country where despite laws in place, there is no respect for freedom of information and journalists must almost always depend on sources, who have their own biases and bigotry, to gain information and to bring it out before the world. For this, it is unfair to blame them.
Social media is not easy to control, but it does appear to have a self-checking mechanism which means that when falsified news goes out, many others, thousands at times, tweet a response or put out content which challenges the original story that went out whether it concerned the impact of Covid vaccines and the many myths surrounding this or some kind of political news. We have seen this happen more and more often as social media grows. Perhaps it needs more time to find its own way of developing checks and regulations, and of course, it is also up to the reader to use the many sites which exist to check fake news instead of simply believing everything that he or she spots on Twitter, on Instagram, on Facebook, or on the many other channels and sites which now make up so much of our world.
In this situation, we need to ask precisely what role the government is playing. The setting up of the Pakistan Media Development Authority, as it is to be called, will be destructive. There is absolutely no need for a body, which simply brings together other bodies and uses laws, which are already in place. If journalists are responsible for wrongful or malicious reporting, they can be tried under stronger libel laws and punished for this. In the past labour courts had, to an extent, performed their function in one way or the other checking on journalists who may have been asked to leave their jobs because of the poor quality of their work.
We also need to encourage editors, news editors, chief reporters and their equivalent people in the electronic realm to return to their seats and take up the tasks that were left off a long time ago. The PMDA, about which many ministers, led by Information Minister Fawad Chaudhary, appear to have gone into overdrive is simply a mechanism to clamp down on free reporting and further repress the media. The media does not need repression. It needs more freedom and at the same time regulation from internal mechanisms when necessary. These mechanisms do exist in the form of codes of ethics, which at least English language newspapers have followed for long periods of time. Of course, there are many publications which violate all ethics, and the need or love for sensationalism has caused a great deal of damage to journalism.
The only way to tackle this is by having journalists themselves take the lead. The professional picture needs that only journalists can operate as expert professionals who in their fields have performed outstanding work inside and outside the country. Trying to crack down on them through fines, which go into crores of rupees and by proposing jail terms simply puts us at the same level as fascist states, which do not want any word that goes against the government to be uttered or spoken about.
The government would also do well to improve its relations with the press. Lambasting them or using vile language to describe professionals, who in some cases have worked for many years in their fields is unacceptable. Every government which has standing knows it needs to work with the press and not against it. This is a mechanism that needs to be worked out. The media itself should regulate what it puts out and how it does so and no outside body should be permitted to take on this role, especially when threats, punishment and severe penalties are the main modus operandi it intends to use. There are already enough laws to control the media when this becomes absolutely essential. No more are required.
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.
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