Media Muzzle and Media Accountability

Jul 2nd, 2010 | By | Category: Censorship, Ethics, Jang, The News

Have some elements of the media gone too far?

The media profession has been all a twitter this week following reports of a meeting between government and military figures to discuss formulation of guidelines for electronic and print media. It is our sincere hope that no such ‘media muzzle’ will come to pass, but we must ask whether some in the media are actually inviting these problems?

Daily Times today includes an editorial on reports that the ministry of foreign affairs, information, and the army’s ‘Joint Staff Headquarters’ (JSHQ) have discussed whether or not there should be media guidelines to ensure national security interests.

The first reaction of any honest journalist should be discomfort with any government constraints on a free press. Constraining the ability of the media to serve as a check on power is a sure path towards abuses of power. But as with any freedom, there are responsibilities. Actions have consequences: Just as eating too much sweets will cause diabetes and rot your health, so can unhealthy reporting rot journalism. Here is what Daily Times says:

Relative freedom of the media has been achieved after great struggle and sacrifice. But there is no such thing as freedom without responsibility. Some sections of the media have used this relatively new found freedom irresponsibly and invited this kind of intervention, as we have been warning repeatedly. The media has failed to self-regulate and hold itself accountable by setting up institutions and structures that provide mechanisms for redress of complaints by the public and affected groups. The Press Council instituted by former president Musharraf failed to become functional and there is no such forum for complaints against the electronic media. Even now, if the media houses come together and, while rejecting this external oversight by essentially the military establishment, produce a code of conduct and structures to regulate themselves, perhaps this ‘sinking’ ship can be saved.

The News (Jang Group)It’s worth noting that Daily Times warning about the problem of irresponsibility and unaccountability in media comes on the same day that The News, a newspaper of the giant media corporation Jang Group, publishes an article by Afzal Khan that could be read as wishing for the president to be assassinated. In an article about his hatred for President Zardari, Afzal Khan writes:

For many it may not be a very pleasant thought that he will not only survive to complete the present term but we may be condemned to bear with him even for another term. It is rather a dreadful scenario of having him as our helmsman and guiding our destinies. Unless he changes his wayward ways and crooked thinking, this is likely to be an unmitigated disaster. Yet it is a ground reality that we may have to face.

Certainly the author will claim innocence and plead his case that he means political survival, not a question of life or death. But why did he not say “stay in office”? Why did he choose the word “survive” which has a very clear meaning of life and death? Even if the reporter, Afzal Khan, could not understand that his article can be read as promoting assassination, was his editor asleep? How did such rhetoric make it to publication?

Even for a company that has admitted that they take anti-government positions to boost their advertising income, on the day following a multiple suicide bombing attack against such a place as the Data Darbar, is it unreasonable for the military and security agencies to worry that media is finally going too far? If a reporter suggests killing the President, is it possible for journalism to become terrorism? If so, at what point will the security agencies step in to stop it?

Despite reporters’ concerns about a crackdown on free press, Zardari and the government have been impressively silent as they suffer daily assaults – often completely unsupported by facts – from all corners of the media. From the moment Zardari was elected, many media elites have seemed determined to topple the government by hook or by crook, and have published a constant stream of ‘wishful journalism’ that is based not on any facts or evidence, but on a determination to cause Zardari to fail. This in itself is irresponsible, unethical, and unprofessional. But Afzal Khan, The News, and Jang Group crossed a line today with what was published.

The Daily Times editorial makes clear that the intention behind discussions of some JSHQ developed media guidelines has been to protect the national security. This is an important and laudable goal. But national security cannot come at the sacrifice of freedoms, otherwise what are we securing? Muzzling the media will only result in blowback from an already hostile press, and invite stern rebukes from the international media as well.

Unfortunately, if Jang Group is unable or unwilling to instruct its publishers, editors, and reporters to uphold a basic sense of responsibility and accountability, it may be that they place the muzzle on themselves. How the people at The News could think it is ever justified to wish for the death of the President of the nation – even if only rhetorically so – is beyond understanding. For the sake of the free press, it is time for the legitimate journalists to take back control of their profession and ensure a basic level of responsibility, accountability and decency. If they do not, someone else surely will.

[UPDATE]Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Qamar Zaman Kaira on Friday ruled out any possibility of imposition of curbs on the media. While this is good news certainly, let us hope that it does not prevent Jang Group and other media corporations from taking their own responsibilities more seriously.

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