Wikileaks tests our media

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

IN Pakistan, the WikiLeaks drama confirms conclusively — if confirmation was needed — that the media has opted for its information and entertainment roles in a big way while abandoning its education responsibility altogether. By making this choice it has also made itself vulnerable to exploitation by vested interests. This has grim implications for the future of democracy in Pakistan and the media itself.

In the 1970s when strong voices of discontent were being raised against the inequitable international information order of the day, Unesco`s director-general Amadou Mahtar M`Bow, an intellectual stalwart of his time and a man of courage, responded to the concerns expressed. He set up a 16-member commission under Sean McBride, the Nobel laureate from Ireland, “to analyse communication problems” and “define the role which communication might play in making public opinion aware of the major problems besetting the world, in sensitising it to these problems and helping gradually to solve them by concerted action at the national and international levels”.

Warning that human history was becoming a “race between communication and catastrophe”, the commission suggested among other things that the information and education function of communication (the term used for the media) should be given importance equal to entertainment. The report published in book form in 1980 under the title Many Voices, One World carried a special message for Pakistan`s media which was at the time under pre-censorship clamped on it by Ziaul Haq.

We have certainly come a long way in terms of the freedom won after a vigorous struggle in which journalists played a key role. But what is disappointing is that the media, as it has evolved, has failed to meet the challenge of maintaining a delicate balance in its three roles of information, education and entertainment so that none detract from the other. What we see today is that the entertainment role has become predominant, with information being woven into it with great dexterity.

One should really have no objection if information is provided like a bitter pill sugar coated with entertainment. But the problem is that in this process of synthesising information, the media often trivialises it and facts are not clearly distinguished from fiction. A lot of the content of the media now consists of sensational information which is presented for its `entertainment` value. This is the case with many television programmes that dole out a lot of half-truths or fantasy.

It is a pity that this should have happened to Pakistan`s media at a time when it has entered the age of democracy. Of course it is not democracy that made freedom inevitable. The fact is that today the government cannot control the flow of news and views even if it wants to on account of the advance in communication technology that has made information so easily accessible. There is also the tilt towards the private sector that has robbed the government of its virtual economic monopoly over the levers of advertising.

But at the same time those in office have nothing to worry about. They only have to develop the capacity to laugh at themselves and desensitise themselves to the volley of criticism the media directs at them.

The WikiLeaks cables vindicate this opinion. It has been widely observed that all that was said in the cables Ambassador Anne Patterson dispatched to her bosses in Washington revealed nothing new. All this was common knowledge in Pakistan. Yet the leaks are being cited as proof of the wrongdoings of our leaders — because our own media has lost credibility and needs an outside stamp to verify its credentials. Then one newspaper group goes overboard and publishes a doctored version of the information said to have been contained in the WikiLeaks disclosures (the agency that provided the item is being blamed) to suit the interests of one of the key players on the political stage.

The new twist in this drama comes in the observation of some analysts that WikiLeaks is intriguingly releasing only pro-US establishment information and that too through selected newspapers such as the “ultra pro-establishment New York Times ” which decide what is to be released of the 250,000 documents said to have been submitted to Wikileaks. So far, only a little over 600 have been released. The recent split in the WikiLeaks team led by Julian Assange on the grounds that there was no transparency in his style of operation has also detracted from WikiLeaks` credibility.

What has been our media`s response to this development? It has picked up on the leaks to disseminate them. The focus has been on the information dimension. Information is basically the raw data that the human mind collects. It may arrange it to make it usable. But to become knowledge, information must have been analysed, processed, contextualised and integrated. In that form knowledge becomes meaningful and allows the person receiving it to develop an understanding of the issues to enable him to apply his own critical thinking to them.

This has not been done. Hence the `gossips` and scandals released were titillating. But they did nothing to promote a cognitive understanding of the issues raised, some of which are extremely crucial to the country`s security and the peace of the region.

Here I would like to reproduce a passage from a note appended to the Unesco report of 1980 that is so relevant for us even today. Written jointly by the renowned Colombian author and journalist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and another member Juan Somavia from Chile, it reads: “We want to emphasise that the `technological promise` is neither neutral nor value-free. Decisions in this field have enormous political and social implications. Each society has to develop the necessary instruments to make an evaluation of alternative choices and their impact.…[it needs to be] highlighted more strongly the basic importance that serious professional research will continue to have in promoting understanding of all these issues and clarifying the underlying structural phenomena.”