Has the penalty slapped by PEMRA on the Jang group and the rap-on-the-wrist suspension of its prime television channels for fifteen days made our media more responsible? Going by the way most of our news channels covered the recent Karachi airport attack, and their other shenanigans that continue unabated, the necessary lessons, it seems, are still to be learnt. So where do we go from here? Should PEMRA suspend another channel for a month? Or should we wait endlessly for the self-regulatory mechanism promised by our media leaders to materialize?

There is obviously a need for regulation. Freedom of the media is not an unbridled license to propagate whatever captures the fancy of those running it with no regard for its veracity or consequences. Friends in the print media are horrified by some of the things that the news channels are passing off as journalism, and often talk about the dipping standards of news and political debate beamed out to millions of viewers 24/7. Telecasting live from locations under terrorist attacks defies all sense and amounts to aiding the terrorists, yet it is done with a relish again and again. Facts are exaggerated, misrepresented, and even invented, to malign political leaders and media rivals, generals and judges. Obviously, it’s not just the ISI that has a valid reason to complain.

It’s somewhat disappointing that the Geo blunder, which should have served as a wake-up call for our media bosses to come together and spur into action on the much-talked about self-regulation, had no such impact. What we saw instead was a display of raw tribal energy; like a rival tribe, some celebrated the misfortune of Geo and another section of the media, with minor admonishments thrown in, gave it unqualified tribal support in the name of media freedom. An opportunity for introspection and improvement was turned into a non-productive tribal war. After all, the problem goes much deeper than one instance of erroneous editorial judgment by one news organization. And it won’t go away if we choose not to see it.

Since the mushrooming of private television channels beaming everything under the sun to millions of viewers— from news and political debates to arts and entertainment, sports to religion and what not, questions about regulating their content have surfaced as a routine. Nothing was done when the incitement of hatred and violence against a religious community resulted in attacks on the minority community and the death of two of its members. No action was taken when two anchorpersons were caught off camera taking directions from a controversial business tycoon that they were interviewing. There have been questions raised about showing dead bodies, about television crews raiding private spaces, about invasion of weddings and funerals, about crime-shows during prime-time. But nothing’s done about it.

The media bosses do not like the idea of anyone else regulating their content, so time and again they have agreed that they themselves should create not only a code of conduct for the media but also a mechanism to regulate their affairs and penalize offenders. This is much-needed and not a bad idea but no concrete development has taken place on that front. In any case, self-regulation by private companies is a part of the solution and should not be seen as a replacement of a public body like PEMRA. Despite its failures and inadequacies, it has an important role to play and must be reformed to play that role effectively.

When I ask friends who are upset about the action taken by PEMRA against Geo about alternative measures that could be taken to streamline a media gone haywire, they don’t have much to say. They point fingers at other channels and their irresponsible behavior or, at best, insist that the media must regulate itself. Even if one were to take the arrogance implicit in the categorical stance on self-regulation in one’s stride, which basically means that no public body should have the authority to make private media organizations accountable for what they propagate, the question remains: when will we see even a modicum of self-regulation?

Actually, that is an ideal solution. It would be great if those running media organizations understand their responsibility to their viewers and to the society that they impact tremendously by what they choose to expose it to, and start exercising caution and a strict editorial control over their content. But in the real world that we inhabit, there are no indications that things are headed that way. There is talk about self-regulation but little action. In fact, things are getting from bad to worse. Most television channels misconstrue media freedom as a license to do as they please; putting profits and ratings before responsibility, sensation before facts, and high-sounding loud campaigns before important information.

Some friends argue that the PEMRA rules and regulations were implemented only when it came to the ISI and the security forces, and therefore, it represents the strong-arm tactics of the men-in-khaki rather than any serious attempt by PEMRA to address the problem of irresponsible journalism practiced by wayward television channels. They’d rather turn it all into a traditional tribal war between the ‘good press’ and the ‘bad intelligence agency’. It does not seem to matter that the ‘good press’ had not been so good after all in this instance. This knee-jerk reflex to defend our own, regardless of their actions, is unlikely to lead to the much-needed improvement in the conduct of our television channels.

In fact, in the absence of any self-regulation by the media, one would argue for penalizing offenders other than GEO and on counts other than the ones brought against Geo. If a hitherto toothless PEMRA has finally decided to exercise the authority vested in it, it should become a precedent for bringing to task other television channels engaged in unprofessional conduct and acting on the complaints lodged by aggrieved parties other than the men-in-khaki. That might shake our media leaders out of their complacency and help them move more resolutely towards the much-needed self-regulation.

 The writer is a freelance columnist.