Media: the threat of co-option

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AROUND this year’s World Press Freedom Day (May 3) the Pakistani media received considerable attention at home and abroad, and it must calmly address some of the issues raised concerning its rights and responsibilities, and the challenges it is facing.

The Amnesty International report on attacks on journalists in Pakistan released last week offered a precise summing up of the national media’s tribulations. Recalling that at least 34 journalists had been killed during the post-Musharraf period and the culprits were at large except in one case, Amnesty concluded that “Pakistan’s media community is effectively under siege”.

The effect the killing of the journalists and the threats to many others had on the people’s right to be adequately informed of events and trends that affect them was thus described: “Journalists, in particular those covering national security issues or human rights, are targeted from all sides in a disturbing pattern of abuses carried out to silence their reporting. Covering almost any sensitive story leaves journalists at risk from one side or another — militants, intelligence agencies or political parties — putting them in an impossible position.”

The Amnesty report derived its title A bullet has been chosen for you, from a warning the head of one of the two Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists factions had received. It underlined one of the major causes of the journalists’ misfortune — a most regrettable split in their union that must be healed at the earliest.

A similar question was put to Pakistan by a US assistant secretary of state while releasing a press freedom report: “How can you be free when some of your best journalists are targeted and killed?” The US report put Pakistan at number 141 in a list of 197 countries, ahead of Afghanistan and Somalia but trailing the largest Saarc neighbours — India and Bangladesh.

At the same time, the International Federation of Journalists called upon the Pakistani government to end impunity for perpetrators of violence against journalists. EU missions in Islamabad also expressed concern over the “steadily deteriorating environment for the media in Pakistan”.

It is clear that attacks on the media are harming Pakistan as a whole. Lack of reliable information will create insurmountable problems for both the rulers and the ruled. The government, political parties and the security agencies must ensure an environment free from coercion and threats, not as a favour to journalists but to save themselves from the terrible consequences of ignorance.

Concern over security matters was not the only issue in reports about the media last week. During the ongoing confrontation between the security agencies and a section of the media, journalists were being targeted by some politicians, public figures, clerics, militants and ordinary citizens. While some of this criticism is apparently inspired by ulterior motives, media leaders would do themselves and the people wrong if they failed to analyse citizens’ complaints against them. They must ponder over the attacks on their right to freedom of expression.

The questions being asked now usually arise when people feel that the media is using its freedom to report half the truth and not the whole of it. Are the people unhappy about the degree of power to control their minds the monopoly houses enjoy or are trying to secure?

The people also get angry when they believe, rightly or wrongly, that the media is using its freedom and privileges to further its own interests and not paying due attention to the plight of ordinary citizens. The media is perhaps in need of redefining the parameters of its freedoms and responsibilities and removing any cause of the citizens’ alienation. The media needs public support and respect not only to win the battles its calling will always force it into but also to remain true to its ideals.

And finally, the pats on the back the media has received. While speaking on the occasion of Martyrs’ Day, army chief Gen Raheel Sharif lauded the media’s role in moulding public opinion on national security and added that the military “believes in freedom of the media, responsible journalism and appreciates its sacrifices”. The same day Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was quoted as saying that the government, politicians, the military and media would together solve the problems facing the country.

The only difference is that while the army chief was making a policy statement and drawing a line between responsible journalists and irresponsible ones (who have provoked the military), the prime minister was responding to questions the media persons under attack are asking almost every passer-by.

Whatever the prime minister may or may not have meant, journalists should be wary of playing the role of collaborators that political leaders now and then offer them. While they may continue to offer their advice to whoever can profit by it, their real function is to mediate between authority (of any hue or shade) and the people. They would compromise their independence if they moved too close to authority.

Indeed, some of their present trials appear to have been caused by quite a few journalists’ attempts to cuddle up to the establishment. The media persons should offer all institutions the regard due to them but their only honourable station is by the side of the people, especially those who have no voice of their own or are unable to articulate their aspirations. A genuine media thrives not by seeking favours from the government but by spurning them.

DAWN

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