Democracy and free media depend on one another but their interests are not always aligned. Both are by and large considered to go together, and it is true that societies with competitive, pluralistic politics and strong civil societies always have news media that is permitted to criticize the government and reflect a wide range of opinions. In Pakistan, the once shackled media has gained a remarkable degree of freedom during the last decade; but freedom to report is just the beginning: beyond that are issues such as media plurality, the power of media owners, the authenticity of reporting and the appetite of the public for responsible and serious journalism.

The current media eco-system in Pakistan has unleashed multifaceted challenges for society in general and policy makers in particular. In Pakistan, media freedom was achieved on the wings of media plurality and freedom of expression. The raison d’etre for media plurality is for the democratic process to flourish. It is important to have an informed and educated citizenry in the state, and if diverse and multiple sources of information and news are available to people an informed and educated citizenry can be achieved. This in turn promotes the democratic process. Ostensibly, it may appear that we are a media pluralistic society since there exist hundreds of TV and Radio FM channels, and literally thousands of registered newspapers and periodicals. However, despite having such a wide spectrum of news production and broadcasting, Pakistan’s media exhibits exceedingly show symptoms of news homogeneity. It is becoming a common observation that all the TV channels broadcast almost identical news agendas, and that talk shows are on the same few topics predominantly from the political genre. Furthermore, due to the chronic state of cross media ownership, newspapers are merely a hardcopy of the news bulletins broadcasted the preceding night. This emerging phenomenon of news homogeneity has exponentially undermined the main purpose of having multiple media outlets in the country.

News homogeneity apart, the newspapers in Pakistan, which already suffer through global and domestic economic crises, have witnessed a significant decrease in their readership due to the electronic media explosion. As a result, various jobs have been eliminated; salaries of reporters unmoved; severe cuts have been imposed in editorial sections, and there is hardly any media organization that invests in the training and capacity building programs of its journalists. In these circumstances, extremist voices are exceedingly making inroads in our media; the messages of unscrupulous mulanas and politicians are increasingly in play, there is inadequate investigation of issues like religious and sectarian divides and cultural differences, and little attempt to relieve the anxieties of social groups troubled by economic and social disorders. Research by the EU commission on human rights suggests that numerous media employers throughout the world have forfeited reporting standards in the pursuit of business objectives; over-ruling values with journalism that is populist, sensational and biased. The democratic cost of this is obvious: scrutiny of power is much reduced and human rights protection is weakened.

Media freedom in the shape of freedom of expression is ensured by a democratic government to protect human rights violations, and for the accountability of public affairs. The constitution of Pakistan ensures freedom of expression as a basic human right with restrictions in the interests of national security, public safety and repute. These limitations provide an unacceptably broad definition of what constitutes “security” or “disorder” or “reputation,” all of which can limit free speech, increase self censorship and reduce the legitimate scrutiny of public affairs.

With the freedom of expression, people are increasingly overwhelmed by a glut of information, much of which is impenetrable since the majority of the population is illiterate. Thus, the need for ethical journalism has become even more fundamental. Ethics in journalism have multiple manifestations, but one critical aspect is the way in which journalists and experts provide commentary in talk shows on the events that shape people’s lives. Freedom of expression gives everyone a right, within limits, to say what they want, how they want it and when. They have the right to be decent or indecent; fair or biased during their discussions in which different opinions are not only expressed but are tested in open debate. However, professionalism in journalism is also about constrained expression; not absolute free expression. It is about professionals who impose self restraint upon themselves based upon respect for others.

Today, media freedom and the state of human rights in Pakistan intersect at a moment of historical change. Therefore it is high time to develop a new narrative of ethical information and to change how Pakistani society is informed. For journalists, governments and the public at large, the task is to balance and protect rights while embracing the positive values of change. The pressure on states throughout the world is mounting to intervene to support the media and responsible journalism, either by the continuation of public interest journalism or to reinforce rules about media ownership in favor of transparency, pluralism and cross media ownership. There is a need to define legal limitations in a precise manner that may curb the accountability of public affairs. Media organizations also need to put their houses in order by investing in the training and capacity building of their employees. In order to make judgments that are morally and legally defensible, journalists must be competent, well trained, and above all, able to operate independently from owners who may be moved by vested interests. 

 The writer is an Information Professional in the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting.