Media's Moment of Shame – Farrukh Khan Pitafi

Oct 21st, 2010 | By | Category: Daily Times

Farrukh Khan PitafiFarrukh Khan Pitafi takes the media to task in his column for Daily Times today over the recent rumour mongering by certain newspapers and TV stations which fueled an unnecessary tension between the executive and judiciary. He also makes the point that has been noted here previously that there is a severe crisis in the media due to a lack of professionalism among editors who should be held responsible for ensuring that articles are reliably sourced and factually accurate before allowing them to be published.

Never throughout my career have I felt as ashamed as I feel now about the media’s misconduct. Last week a few news channels flashed an item that was later proved to be nothing more than a rumour. The item claimed that the government was about to withdraw the notification that had reinstated the judges sacked by Musharraf. The apex court’s judges met in emergency and issued a press release. I am not to discuss the court’s reaction or the government’s attitude when it was asked to clarify. However, I feel heartbroken by the callous attitude of our mainstream media, which brought the country to a standstill with reports that it has failed to substantiate. Could it be an elaborate deception by a section of the press or a government ploy to expose the media’s lack of responsibility? We may never know. However, there is no doubt that the reports were aired without regard to the best practices known to journalists. And had there been any evidence present to back the claims up, it would have already surfaced by now.

In the golden days of journalism, we were taught not to carry any report unless there was prima facie evidence or at least three separate sources available. In the case of a breaking story or report of critical importance, this rule was relaxed to either two independent sources or word from the horse’s — in this case the prime minister’s or the law minister’s — mouth. As evident however, none of these precautions were taken, nor was any patience shown for such details to emerge. Innocent until proven guilty is the universal principle in case of unsubstantiated allegations. However, in this particular case it was deemed fit to consider the government guilty until proven innocent.

Since there were no reprimands for those who reported inadequately, a narrative is already being developed that projects them as the saviours of the independent judiciary who foiled an elaborate conspiracy. It is tragic that any sensible person can justify such glaring malpractices to such an extent. It must also be noted here that I am not an enemy of the independent judiciary, nor any lackey of the government. I have always maintained that any attempts to remove the sitting judges by the elected government will be counterproductive for democracy. As for the media, since it is my first love, I have always fought for media freedom. But you have to realise that this is a government with a learned tendency of failing to take the pressure and so vulnerable that it had to give an unprecedented extension to an army chief. Similarly, when it came to the appointment of the judges it had to beat a retreat overnight. To think that it can even plan, what to talk of putting into action, such a measure is stretching the imagination to the breaking point. Yes, anyone can indulge in daydreams and you cannot punish people for their sweet dreams or angry discussions. The chief justice’s claim that he knew for a fact that it was not a baseless report complicates the matter further.

The best practice would be to ask the concerned reporters or the channel managements to produce the evidence. It is important not to confuse a source with evidence. Even when we have sources we are not supposed to air an item without our own satisfaction. And in any case, no source will ever accept that it had generated such information in the absence of recorded evidence. If media outlets do not produce evidence they should be fined and asked to ground the reporter for a bit. This is about the only civilised way.

Now let us focus on the source of the problem in the heart of darkness. Apart from the culture of cynicism that has mushroomed around the current government and for which the government’s poor media policy is to be blamed, the institution of a professional editor is almost extinct in this country. In the presence of owner-editors the assurance of content quality and adherence to media ethics becomes impossible. Our profession has become highly complacent and in a conflict between the business owners and a professional editor, most journalists wish to stand with the former. Had there been professional editors in place, even if unverified information was produced, it would not have made it to the screen or print. Also the professional editor, given the damage caused, would have sacked someone.

Of course, there is the issue of talk show hosts-anchorpersons and their reckless attitude. It must be recognised that since each anchor-host is responsible for the content of his program, he/she is usually expected to act as an editor for the content. But remember in the heat of live programming there always is the chance of some inappropriate behaviour. A professional editor as the media’s conscience should always be there to remind the anchor and to issue the corrigendum. Yet these are mad times and even at stations with elaborate infrastructure, a tendency of getting carried away has been witnessed. In a tragic twist of fate, it is often observed that owing to the lawyers’ movement even the judiciary has developed a soft spot for such groups or channels. That is exactly why libel cases are not too often filed in the courts these days. It is imperative that in order to prove that it is truly independent, the judiciary should create some means and precedents to show impartiality. Similarly the government needs to ask why its media policy is such an abysmal failure. It is curious to see how those who are responsible for such failures are rewarded. It is not as if the government does not have media savvy individuals. Farhatullah Babar and Sherry Rehman both know how to interact with the media without offending anyone’s intelligence. But only those who prefer confrontation are promoted.

Please remember that name-calling or accusing well known journalists of being foreign spies will not serve anything. If there is a crisis due to the media in the country, we will all have to start acting more responsibly. However, all-important interventions are elaborated above. No external restrictions will ever prove viable in the long run.

Tags: , , ,

2 comments
Leave a comment »

  1. Jang/Geo/News are very fond of Washington Post:) Read what they say about GEO. – Pakistan’s press piles on president By David Nakamura

    Washington Post Staff Writer Thursday, October 21, 2010; 10:33 AM
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/21/AR2010102102292.html

    ISLAMABAD – On a recent morning, readers of the News,Pakistan’s largest English-language newspaper, awoke to an unusual front-page advertisement: Printed atop a photo of President Asif Ali Zardari was the allegory of a Muslim caliph who willingly submitted to the court after being accused of wrongdoing.

    “Why not you Mr. President?” the advertisement asked. It was signed: “Geo with Justice.”
    Geo is not a political opposition group, but rather Pakistan’s most popular television network. Zardari has been hounded relentlessly by news commentators to stand trial for a litany of alleged financial kickbacks from years ago, and the taunt was just one more indication that the country’s media industry has become less a chronicler of the news than a political force in its own right.

    In response to the ad, a spokeswoman for the ruling Pakistan People’s Party angrily announced that its members would boycott Geo and the News, which are both owned by the Jang Group corporation, by refusing to participate in interviews and talk shows. The News fought back, running a front-page report this week that said the ruling party was “spewing venom” by calling journalists “Indian agents” and “enemies of democracy.”

    The media were instrumental in bringing about a return to democracy in Pakistan in 2008, but they’ve taken an increasingly antagonistic stance toward Zardari’s administration in the two years since. With the government struggling to prop up a stagnant economy, fight religious extremists and provide flood relief, reporters have found an appealing target in Zardari, whose administration contends with weekly rumors of collapse. Whether this is a healthy free press at work or a destabilizing force in a tense and turbulent democracy is the subject of much debate.

    “They are totally anti-government; they’re not objective; they twist everything,” said Fauzia Wahab, a Zardari confidante who is the ruling party’s information secretary. “We do not mind a free press, but we definitely mind if somebody has an agenda or somebody is trying to destabilize the government and the country and create an anarchic situation.”

    This view might seem hyperbolic were it not for the events of the past week. Last Thursday, several television stations, citing unnamed sources, reported that Zardari had secretly decided to dissolve the Supreme Court in a bid to escape a potential trial. That prompted the court to convene an emergency hearing at which it demanded that the attorney general provide written assurance that no such action would take place. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani lambasted the stories as “baseless rumors” in a public address.
    Reporters contend that the amount of time administration officials spend attacking the media reveals their misplaced priorities.

    “Nowhere in developed society does the government go after the media in the way this government goes after us,” said Rana Jawad, Geo’s Islamabad bureau chief, who oversees 18 correspondents. “That leaves us no choice but to defend ourselves and serve our viewers by interpreting what the government does to us. Sometimes that may compromise our impartiality, but that’s what happens when you’re pitted against a government that is hell bent on destroying and muzzling you.”

    The free press is relatively new in Pakistan, which was limited to a few government-controlled outlets until Gen. Pervez Musharraf opened the doors to private media ownership in 2002. He wanted to wean residents from relying on Indian news broadcasts, but the general lacked the stomach for independent watchdogs: He shuttered Geo and other stations in late 2007 as their criticism of his government intensified.

    The media have expanded rapidly under Zardari. Today, there are 90 television and 135 radio stations serving a country of 168 million, many of whom are illiterate and rely on broadcast news, said Adnan Rehman, executive director of Intermedia, which advocates for freedom of the press in Pakistan. The number of journalists has grown from 2,000 in 2002 to 17,000 today, while the average age of a reporter has fallen from 47 to 23, he added.

    “The lack of experience and increased competition ensures that the emphasis is not on investigation but on sensation and more opinion than fact,” Rehman said. “You find this perpetual cycle of political conflicts that do not have as much life as the media injects into it.”

    During last summer’s massive floods that displaced millions of residents, news reports asserted that the government had intentionally broken levees to save property belonging to powerful officials at the expense of land owned by ordinary residents. Wahab contends that officials were instead acting to save critical infrastructure such as railways and roads.

    “It’s bitter criticism bordering on profanity,” she said. “They’re always talking negative and that leads to despondency [among the public]. Suppose this government falls, then what do you have? Do you want this country to become Afghanistan?”

    Cyril Almeida, a columnist for Dawn, a major English-language newspaper, poked fun at the media’s role in prompting the emergency hearing last Friday. Despite a courtroom packed with more than 100 journalists and 40 television cameras, Almeida wrote, “curiously, more than 12 hours after the story first broke, no reporter appeared sure of the veracity or the provenance of the allegations.”

    Fekhar Rehman, who broke the story for Aaj television, said he confirmed his report with three sources and speculated that the government killed the plan only after its disclosure sparked a public backlash. But Almeida believes the network jumped prematurely to juice its ratings.

    “This crisis shows where the media can be dangerous. The echo-chamber affected relations between institutions of government,” Almeida said. “But I blame the government, too. This administration has no interest in governance and things are catastrophically bad, so there are enough people out there who believe that something like this is possible.”

  2. In the golden days of journalism, we were taught not to carry any report unless there was prima facie evidence or at least three separate sources available. In the case of a breaking story or report of critical importance, this rule was relaxed to either two independent sources or word from the horse’s — in this case the prime minister’s or the law minister’s — mouth. As evident however, none of these precautions were taken, nor was any patience shown for such details to emerge. Innocent until proven guilty is the universal principle in case of unsubstantiated allegations. However, in this particular case it was deemed fit to consider the government guilty until proven innocent.

Leave Comment

?>