Is it time for Press Council?

Jun 29th, 2010 | By | Category: Ethics

Babar Ayaz believes it is. I don’t know that I am convinced quite yet that the Press Council of Pakistan Ordinance is the solution to the problem of media ethics. But I am certainly convinced that something needs to be done. Pakistan’s media is finally free – but it still fails too often to be fair and factual. With this mindset, Babar Ayaz raises the question that anyone who reads this blog (or any blog or news website that is critical of media) has been asking for years: If media is bold enough to criticise government, why can’t it conduct a little self-criticism.

Before moving on with the issue of media ethics, which was touched by me in the last column, let me affirm that I am a staunch supporter of freedom of expression. Whatever freedom of media we have today is largely thanks to the valiant struggle of the journalists and advent of cyber technology. But we are still far from achieving freedom of expression in our society. This issue I would leave for some other time.

Coming back to the media ethics issue in Pakistan, most governments have used absence of any self-imposed code of ethics by the media as an opportunity to curtail media freedom. This governmental onslaught on the media has created a kind of aversion for any talk about responsible journalism. These terms have been misused so many times by successive governments and ruling parties that in reaction we are afraid to talk about it, lest we should be branded as government agents. In recent history, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) organised a seminar in 2008 in association with the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and did develop a 10-point code of conduct guidelines urging the media to follow them. But like all seminars there was no follow up on the recommendations.

If we are bold enough to criticise the bad and corrupt governance of the civil government, dangerously foolish national security policy of the establishment and militant organisations, then why shy away from self-criticism? Consistent self-evaluation is the only way to improve qualitatively.

The issue of ethics of journalism or code of conduct has remained under discussion for over half a century. There has been a tussle between the government and the various representative bodies of the press in this period. Different governments tried to impose their own codes of conduct, which actually were veiled attempts to control the media. But after many negotiations, a Press Council of Pakistan Ordinance was promulgated in 2002. This ordinance got parliament’s approval under the 17th Amendment.

Although this ordinance had said that all the 19-members committee would be nominated within 30 days of the notification of this law in the gazette, eight years have passed and the nominations process has not been completed. Two chairmen were appointed by the government, but both left within a short span of time. The post has to be filled in by a retired Supreme Court judge. According to the All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) and Council of Pakistan Newspapers Editors (CPNE), they have nominated the required four members each. PFUJ had initially objected that CPNE members are mostly owner-editors, hence the owners representation would outnumber the working journalists. But PFUJ office bearers say that they have now nominated four journalists.

Other members who have not been nominated so far are from: the Pakistan Bar Council, Higher Education Commission, leader of the house in the National Assembly, leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, a mass media educationist, and a woman member.

It seems that nobody is in a rush to get the Press Council up and running. This so-called ‘autonomous and independent commission’ is at present manned just by a section officer. So when the print media is blamed, at times rightly, for transgressing the code of ethics, there is nobody to complain to. Yes, one can go to court, filing a defamation and damages suit, but litigation takes years. By the time the decision comes, everybody has forgotten the disputed report and perceptions are made. And every time there would be a hearing, the same allegations would be published again by the media. After repeated such reports, the perception sets in that the reports are true. The word ‘indicted’ is now perceived as pronounced guilty and the word ‘alleged’ is seldom used.

The media and the government had agreed to a 17-clause code of conduct, which is attached as schedule to the Press Council Ordinance 2002 (It can be downloaded from the Press Council website). Here I would just highlight a few clauses of the code of conduct and leave the judgment to my fellow journalists and the readers how frequently these ethical virtues are being flouted:

* The press shall strive to uphold standards of morality and must avoid plagiarism and publication of slanderous and libellous material.

* The press shall strive to publish and disclose all essential and relevant facts and ensure that the information it disseminates is fair and accurate.

* The press shall avoid biased reporting or publication of unverified material, and avoid the expression of comments and conjecture as established fact.

* The press shall respect the privacy of individuals and shall do nothing which is tantamount to an intrusion into private family life and home.

* Rumours and unconfirmed reports shall be avoided and if at all published, shall be identified as such.

* The press shall avoid originating, printing, publishing and disseminating any material, which encourages or incites discrimination or hatred on grounds of race, religion, caste, sect, nationality, ethnicity, gender, disability, illness, or age, of an individual or group.

* The press shall rectify promptly any harmful inaccuracies, ensure that corrections and apologies receive due prominence and afford the right of reply to persons criticised or commented upon when the issue is of sufficient importance.

* Sensationalism of violence and brutalities shall be avoided. All reporting shall be accurate, particularly when court proceedings are covered, and an accused person must not be presented as guilty before judgment has been pronounced.

Now had the Press Council been functional, people could take complaints to the inquiry commission as stipulated in the law under Article 9 of the ordinance. The inquiry commission is supposed to consist of one retired high court judge or a person qualified to be a judge of the high court as chairman, and one nominee each of APNS and CPNE. However, the working journalists feel that the inquiry commission should have their nominee also as they fear that both APNS and CPNE are media owner-driven. But the counter-argument is that nobody from the newspaper industry should be on the board as the members may not give decisions against their own peers. This possibility cannot be ruled out, as we have seen that most professional associations and trade unions have failed to take any action for malpractice against their peers, e.g. lawyers’ and doctors’ associations.

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