Crossing the line

March 7, 2021

The growth of the media from print to electronic to the massive digital media ecosystem has led to a mushroom growth in journalists and social media activists. This has created a culture of ‘fake news’, propaganda and irresponsible journalism

Alan Rusbridger, the former editor-in-chief of The Guardian, says in his latest book News and How To Use It, “Journalists need to look into the mirror a bit more and try to see themselves as others see them. The best journalism will thrive. Maybe we need a pandemic to wake us up to its importance.”

In 2007, during a visit to The New York Times offices, one of the senior journalists told me that the digital media in the coming years could become the biggest challenge, not only for the media itself but for society as well. This foreboding has come true, even in countries like the United States and India, with the ‘fake news’ phenomenon. Once truth was the first casualty in war; now it’s a major casualty during peace-time also. Governments and other groups use different forms of social media for propaganda and, at times, to spread hate. There are also lots of positive developments attributable to digital media. People have greater access to information and video footage to determine the accuracy of the news they get. It’s a new challenge for the print and electronic media because, at times, they pick up news from social media without verifying the facts.

How destructive social media can be, particularly in a highly polarised environment, can be judged from the fact that a single clip can cause havoc by inciting violence – as was the case in the attack on Geo’s headoffice in Karachi recently, over a controversial comment made by the host of a popular TV show. Ironically, in this case, the attack was led by a journalist, who is a member of the Karachi Press Club and has been an office bearer of the Karachi Union of Journalists.

One could completely disagree with the comment made in the show Khabarnaak regarding Sindhis and every citizen has a right to protest, but physical violence can never be justified. The way the office reception was ransacked and the poor staff and guards were manhandled could have led to worse situations.

The watchdog role of journalism and independent media is vital to the development of a democratic culture and a tolerant society, something that is missing here. Over the last 20 years, we have seen the growth of electronic media and now, with an unedited and uncontrollable social media, practicing ethical journalism has become far more difficult. All this has made the media the most dangerous profession. In such an environment, those who live by the pen risk dying by the gun. Those who speak the truth are often silenced.

Media freedom cannot be achieved without the freedom of the individual. It is generally believed that the freedom of the press cannot be seen in isolation. It is part of other freedoms that go into making a civilised society. The growth of the media from print to electronic to the massive digital media ecosystem has led to a mushroom growth in journalists and social media activists. This has created a culture of ‘fake news,’ propaganda and irresponsible journalism.

A misleading headline led to the murder of columnist Dr Chishti Mujahid. We have witnessed many such attacks. But never has a journalist led such an attack, as happened in this case. I have dealt with such situations as a leader of journalist unions like the PFUJ, KPC or KUJ, but the attacks have been led by political or religious groups, not by someone who himself was active in the union.

The controversial comment was about the plight of the people of Sindh, and the host later clarified his comment, saying that he never meant to offend anyone. He hadn’t expected the kind of outrage that ensued when it went viral on social media. There is a vast difference between political satire and insulting remarks that can be hurtful to a segment of society. One has to be careful in choosing one’s words. This is the impact that social media has these days. One comment on a mainstream talk show by the host or a guest, which otherwise would go unnoticed, has the potential to create havoc if it goes viral.

Unfortunately, ratings are the new standard. They have replaced the old code of public responsibility in the mindset of many a media person. In the ‘corporate media’, professionalism, ethics and responsibility have lost to sensationalism. So where is the media fault line? The media’s job is to separate truth from lies. Politicians do spin the truth, but if the media also tries to spin the news, it can get them into trouble. The mainstream media needs to realise that in today’s world, political parties have strong social media apparatuses that monitor every show, talk shows as well as satire.

Political satire often comes under criticism, from either the supporters or workers of one party or another. This is partially because it is sometimes difficult to understand. Furthermore, we no longer have quality satire, like that of the late Kamal Ahmad Rizvi or Anwer Maqsood. I don’t agree with what was said in the show by my colleague, Mr Irshad Bhatti, just as he doesn’t agree with many of my political comments, but we respect each other’s right to disagree. He believes that his comments were misinterpreted. Some could disagree with this explanation as well but, in my humble view, there can be no justification for a physical attack on the media house and those responsible for the attack must be held accountable.

Given our deeply polarised society, journalism has become a more challenging profession. Today, any person with a smart phone can be a journalist. As Rusbridger writes in his book, “The official script for journalism was that once people woke up to the ocean of rubbish and lies all around them they’d come back to the safe harbour of professionally-produced news. You couldn’t leave this stuff to amateurs or give it away for free. Sooner or later, people would flood back to the haven of proper journalism.” Let’s hope better sense prevails on all fronts because journalism has to be in the public interest. People also need to accept dissent or criticism, while we journalists have to be more responsible in our work, even if it is supposed to be political satire.

The writer is a senior columnist and analyst for GEO, The News and Jang group. He can be reached on Twitter   @MazharAbbasGEO

Crossing the line