All Codes of Conducts should be voluntary and self-regulatory tools
Pakistan is a conflict-stricken country. After less-than-professional coverage of every incident of terrorism, major accidents, floods, elections and perceived objectionable entertainment programmes, the demand emerges for a ‘code of conduct’ for the media. These demands are made by various quarters, including politicians, civil society, religious groups, and state institutions.
For the first time in 2012, this demand was raised by journalists and media anchors themselves when allegations of corruption and bribery were hurled against them. Hamid Mir and Absar Alam approached the Supreme Court of Pakistan to seek judicial intervention to help do an overhauling of the way media operates, including a professional CoC for the media.
While there is no difference between the academia and professionals about the need for declared codes of conduct and ethics for the media, there is also no disagreement that these codes should be voluntary and self-regulatory tools. Scholarship on media professionalism indicates that the codes are mainly considered as "essential instruments of self-regulation." The codes are widely supposed to be ‘voluntarily adopted guidelines’ to give a better shot at professionalism by the media free of external coercion.
The philosophy behind the codes, as stated by Straubhaar, LaRose & Davenport in Media Now: Understanding Media, Culture, and Technology (2010) is that "whoever enjoys a special measure of freedom, like a professional journalist, has an obligation to society to use their freedoms and powers responsibly." Yavuz Baydar, who introduced the concept of ombudsmanship to the Turkish press, argues that the codes are "a fundamental point of reference, guiding journalists on their role, their rights and obligations and how they can best perform their job; all while representing a standard against which their work can be assessed."
It is, therefore, widely justified to expect and demand from the media a CoC or a code of ethics for its practitioners. If a CoC is a given as a measure of self-regulation, then these codes are supposed to be voluntary, developed and agreed upon by the sector’s practitioners themselves. The very concept of the code delinks it from state intervention in the process of its formulation.
However, within the broader community of media stakeholders, it is principally the mandate of professional bodies of journalists to lead the process of formulation of the code. If this can be ensured, involving other stakeholders, such as media owners, civil society and relevant state agencies can help achieve a broader ownership of such codes, which place them in a better position to implement and enforce them. Otherwise, a CoC piloted by a governmental body, will essentially be rightly perceived as ‘state-regulation’ rather than a ‘code’ as a tool for ‘self-regulation.’
In Pakistan, several efforts have been made by professional journalists to come up with a consensus-based code of conduct for the professional media. One of the significant developments in this regard was the formulation of a code of conduct by PFUJ in the 1950s. However, this code was drafted decades before the arrival of electronic media in the country.
Similarly, in this millennium, beside the presence of Pemra’s CoC for the electronic media, the PFUJ’s CoC for journalists and Press Council of Pakistan (PCP)’s Ethical Code of Practice for print media, several efforts have been made to develop a consensus-based code of conduct or code of ethics for the media.
The PPP government (2008-2013) formed a committee comprising eminent legal experts, human rights activists and journalism, like Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim and I. A. Rehman to draft such a consensus CoC acceptable to principal stakeholders. Nothing much came out of it, sadly.
Another serious attempt was made in 2012 when various civil society groups and media development organisations formed an alliance to promote greater professionalism in the media -- the Coalition for Ethical Journalism (PCEJ) -- and to formulate a media consumer and civil society-led CoC for the media. The alliance continues its deliberations and has collated basic inputs from a wide array of consumers and other stakeholders to formulate a consensus CoC. The PCEJ is expected to finalise a CoC and present it for endorsement in 2016.
Strong voices for a consensus CoC kept coming both from the state institutions and civil society groups. Such demands particularly arrived from the security establishment after incidents like attacks on the GHQ, Mehran Base, Kamra Base, Karachi Airport, and Army Public School, Peshawar.
The latest CoC as notified by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting last week, and billed as a "consensus document" has been developed under the directions of the Supreme Court. It is also being claimed by the government that it was developed after consultations with stakeholders like PBA, APNS and CPNE.
However, it is ironic that professional journalists who have the right to develop a professional code of conduct for themselves as a tool of self-regulation, and on whom will lie the burden of practising it, were never made part of the formal process of consultations. The PFUJ has already made statements opposing the new code. Therefore, this new CoC serves to act more like a ‘state-regulation of electronic media content’ than a ‘professional code of conduct.’
The current media landscape in Pakistan portrays a confused picture while continuing to be a holdover from the last century in its orientation and dynamic than the more professionally demanding new millennium. Diversity of the media, increase in the number of journalists and media houses, and changing dynamics of the media market make it challenging to achieve a consensus-based CoC for the entire media.
So, what can be done? Possibly, a broader set of guidelines, which may be used to develop CoC by every media house, can be drawn and agreed upon. Though a few have welcomed this freshly notified CoC, it is unrealistic to expect professionalism in the media in the country through a media regulator that was itself not formally consulted or impose it on journalists who were never formally consulted. If these key principals of the media do not own this new CoC, how can it possibly succeed?