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Towards media reforms?

While there is much hand-wringing in society on the powerful and irresponsible role the media has assumed for itself in Pakistan, little attention was paid by the media itself to the report released by the two member media commission appointed by the Supreme Court in January 2013.

The authors of the report, retired Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid and former information minister and senator, Javed Jabbar, express their concern on the apathy they observed. In their letter to the registrar of the Supreme Court, they write:

“… to date ie end May 2013. A period of about 45 days since the placement of Part One of the Report on the website of the Supreme Court, there has not been a single report of the Commission’s findings, observations and recommendations on TOR No. F ie “to inquire into allegations of media-related corruption and suggest steps to ensure impartial and independent media for the upcoming elections”.

The commission members also express their concern over the lack of public response to the nine-point terms of reference (TOR) earlier published in all leading newspapers in all languages.

The media commission was constituted by the Supreme Court in response to a petition filed by two journalists requesting the court to order the Ministry of Information to release details of secret funds disbursed to media persons. The TOR was broadened to cover wider issues of corruption and to propose recommendations for a fairer media, particularly in view of the general elections scheduled for May 2013.

Spread over two parts with annexures, the commission’s report is possibly the first to touch on the media in Pakistan in totality. The Commission members have done a painstaking job of not only analysing media structures, ownership patterns and policies but have put forward many recommendations, some of which go to the heart of the issues that ordinary citizens have with the mass media.

Certain aspects of the report are an eye-opener even for those fairly familiar with the workings of the media in Pakistan. The four categories of media (print, electronic, social & classical/below the line) studied, have, for example, different conditions and criteria for functioning even though audiences for most overlap.

And while the proliferation of private television channels gives the impression that it is relatively easy to enter this competitive and crowded field of electronic media, the requirements are the toughest.

Apart from meeting the eligibility parameters set by Pemra, the electronic media regulatory authority, which include the payment of a licence fee of Rs5 million, there is heavy investment involved in equipment and facilities — not to mention the running cost.

Understandably, it is only those with deep pockets who can enter the charmed world of private television, raising serious issues of corruption and lack of transparency. Allegations of corruption were, in fact, among the prime reasons for the setting up of the commission itself. And it has done a fairly good job of looking at both the issue of conflict of interest in terms of media ownership, as well as the editorial corruption that seeps in when advertisers begin to exercise control over media content.

In fact, the report puts forward several recommendations for regulating advertising in the media, through “legally mandated institutions such as an Advertising Council and an Advertising Standards Authority in view of the strong impact that advertising delivers on media content”.

The authors also point to the fact that “Advertisers virtually dictate prime time content preferences by using a narrow, relatively non-representative, heavily urban and consumption-oriented rating system to pressurise channels into cut-throat competition and to a lowering of standards of content”. This cut-throat competition has also led to the sensationalising of news and the “breaking news” phenomenon.

The report’s recommendation that Pemra facilitate community-based electronic media is particularly welcome. If the proposals are adopted it would open up opportunities for not-for-profit organisations to contribute to development through one of the quickest and most effective channels of social change.

However, it needs attitudinal as well as major policy changes. Amendments in media laws, which have become antiquated in view of current developments and realities, are also needed for which various recommendations to the government and parliament have been made in the report.

The unchecked competition referred to has resulted in a frenzied pace of reporting, often with facts unverified. Television audiences have thus developed a love-hate relationship with the medium. They freely quote television reports as proof of corruption in government — or of other misdeeds by the powers-that-be and, yet, accuse the channels of spreading despondency and negativism.

The need for a self-regulatory body for the media has been under discussion for about a decade and the media commission’s report also stresses the need for such a body. In fact, it goes further in not only recommending parliamentary oversight but also proposing major restructuring of the information ministries and departments at federal and provincial levels.

With such sweeping proposals, the recommendations of the report need open debate. Some would seem contentious to those working in the media. I, for one, was irked by the chauvinistic tone of one of the ‘negative facets’ listed, i.e. the “Tendency on the part of some sections of media to conduct criticism of civil and military institutions in terms that are remarkably similar to criticism of the same institutions by sections of overseas media including Indian media, thereby adversely impacting internal national cohesion and solidarity during a time when the country faces harsh internal as well as external threats”.

Such arguments are commonly used by those in power to stem criticism. There should be no holy cows and, the military establishment, if anything, is treated with undue reverence by the media. There are also allegations of linkages between television anchors and those in the military’s intelligence agencies.

There is a lesson to be learnt from the Indian media — the day it decided (by and large) to echo official policies on ‘national’ issues it began to lose its credibility and stature.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

Zohra Yusuf, "Towards media reforms?," Dawn. 2013-07-29.
Keywords: Supreme court , Social media , Media laws , Media policy , Mass media , Media-Pakistan , Society-Pakistan , Post elections-2013 , Judicial issues , Judiciary-Pakistan , Electronic media , Media-India , Elections , Corruption , Nasir Aslam , Javed Jabbar , Pakistan , TOR , PEMRA