By Zubeida Mustafa
THE scandal surrounding the now defunct “News of the World” which has brought much embarrassment to the high and mighty in London will hopefully prove to be the proverbial watershed that the media in our globalised world badly needs.
One positive result of the fall of Rupert Murdoch’s empire in Britain is that questions are being asked about the integrity of his 200 or so outlets that span several continents. Mercifully, the first bubble to burst was in a country known for its respect for the rule of law and human rights. Had a misdeed of this nature been committed by a media outlet in a country like Pakistan where governance is weak and the law flouted with impunity it would have been hastily covered up. In fact, accusing fingers would have been pointed at those wanting to muzzle the media.
Now that the News of the World stands exposed for its abuse of the law on people’s right to privacy and bribing the police, it is time the issue of the media’s role were taken up seriously not just in Britain, where it is being addressed, but internationally. The lines must be clearly drawn by the stakeholders, and governments should ensure that no one oversteps them. I didn’t realise how the media has been receiving quite a bit of flak from all sides until I was handed a resolution at the Caux Human Security Forum that I attended recently.
Last year, the participants at Caux had adopted a motion urging the media to “restore the credibility and dignity of their profession”. Its observations were telling: “We are living in a time of fundamental crisis, which is not only economic, but a crisis of civilisation itself. This is the age of a pseudo-civilisation of materialism, consumerism and hedonism. We are convinced that the media should play a crucial role in helping to find the way towards a new, enlightened civilisation. In fact, without honesty, open-mindedness and dedication to this cause in the media there is very little chance that we would emerge from this current global crisis.”
And what are the qualities that are considered important to pull humanity out of this crisis? The resolution speaks of honesty in the media itself, democracy in the country where the media operate, and above all a strong community of citizens. Admitting that the media crisis was a part of the global crisis, the resolution emphasised that the media “can and must be a big part of the solution”.
Of course, this message was not disseminated widely enough and I doubt if any media parties in Pakistan ever heard of this appeal from Caux in 2010. That is the problem in seeking solutions from those who are a part of the problem themselves. They do not help in its solution in a big way. If they wanted to why would they have caused the problem in the first place?This year Caux devoted an entire session to ‘the media in an age of crisis’ that was chaired by Bernard Margueritte, president of the International Communications Forum.
M. Margueritte summed up the crisis very succinctly. The media should be seen in the present-day context, that is, the age of globalisation, control of big business over the media (in the West it is the arms industry) and profit-making being the end-all and be-all of the media even if it results in trivialising its agenda by resorting to sensationalism. Against this backdrop, journalists are manipulated and they in turn manipulate the public.
In Pakistan where democratic traditions are virtually non-existent and the rule of law carries no meaning the hue and cry against its misdeeds has fallen on deaf years. Corrective measures have not been taken even though media functionaries have been accused of accepting paybacks and inciting murders and violence. The government is also said to be using the media for its own nefarious purposes. Remember the secret funds at the disposal of the information ministry? Many journalists offer the excuse that they are under pressure from their proprietors to produce stories that sell.
Can a handful of people be allowed to hold society hostage? Since not all media people have sold their souls to the devil it is time for them to act to restore the dignity of the media and save their integrity and reputation. In the absence of an established code of ethics and a commission to receive complaints, which could never be created given the relationship of mistrust among the various parties, the time has come for the members of this profession to make yet another attempt to draw up guidelines for their work.
If the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists and editors of all major newspapers and news editors of television channels join hands on what they want journalism — print and electronic — to be they could resist pressure from those proprietors who resist ethical norms. Change is possible.
This would, however, require the media bodies to draw up a code of ethics, provide training to their members who have not been exposed to the norms of dignity and even set up a fund to prevent the victimisation of their colleagues who suffer monetary losses if they refuse to bend the rules.The need is to create the space and time for journalists to do the needful, namely, research and verify their stories while doing some thinking on how they are to be presented.