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The lost mission

By Syed Hasam Ali

February 17th 2012

Human beings could be influenced by three major forms of power i.e. direct physical power on one’s body, by giving rewards and punishments or by influencing opinion. —Bertnard Russell.

The media industry in Pakistan has gained legitimacy slowly but surely among the people and come out a dynamic strength, particularly broadcast media. It is in essence the third category of Bertnard Russell’s classification of exercising power – power exercised through influencing public opinion.

Media houses, especially news channels have become pivotal actors in influencing public opinion. However, with this tremendous power of opinion shaping, the responsibility that comes with it seems to be amiss. Recently, and very rightfully many questions have been raised about the ethics, code of conduct, impartiality and the accountability of the Pakistani media.

Not too long ago, we witnessed serious concerns about the media’s moral vigilantism when a morning show host went hunting after couples in a park. But seeing how that episode has gotten its fair share of ‘coverage’, I’d like to instead talk about the tragic stampede in Lahore at a concert that resulted in the death of three girls; and how the media’s code of conduct in point of fact comes into question on this horrific incident and the series of events that followed it.

The concert in discussion was organised by the Punjab Group of Colleges (PCG) run by Mian Amir Mehmood, who (also) owns a private channel. Following the developments of this incident closely, it was appalling to realise that this dreadful episode did not even get its due coverage in the mainstream media. Various channels mentioned the news initially but no follow-ups on the developments of the story were reported. Not even local channels that normally extensively cover metropolitan news bothered giving it a highlight.

A press conference was held by the families of two of the deceased girls at the Lahore press club to demand a judicial probe into the matter and to punish those who were responsible for it. This press conference too went mostly unreported.

Being a political science major and a keen observer of news reporting in Pakistan, I have, by now, at least identified how much coverage a news story should get on the basis of its level of priority. The Lahore stampede news story did not so much as make it as a ‘main cover story’.

But wait, could this really just have been just a coincidence? How is that all newsrooms in Pakistan decided simultaneously on the airtime, or lack thereof, of this particular news story? I do not intend to slander someone gratuitously, but if my speculation of a case of media lobbying does stand true, it is a grave situation for the Pakistani public and needs immediate attention.

My speculation only gained strength when I dug into the details of the above mentioned press conference. Impartiality and honesty are the essence of news reporting; however, what happened at the press conference flouted all basic principles of journalism.

I found the proceedings of the press conference sordid. There were journalists who were representing the very same news channel whose owner’s repute was at stake and it was noticeable that they were speaking someone else’s words. The families of the victims were slapped with accusations, such as:

Are you trying to bargain the rate of blood money?

You also are associated with a private TV channel, are they pressurising you to do this press conference against another channel?

You have all the opportunities available to you and you are being given all the attention, it appears that you are just staging a drama here.

If you didn’t trust the management, why did you send your daughter to the concert?

This disgrace to the profession of journalism, kept bringing to mind something Pope John Paul II once said:

“With its vast and direct influence on public opinion, journalism cannot be guided by economic forces, profit, and special interest. It must instead be felt as a mission, in a certain sense sacred, carried out in the knowledge that the powerful means of communication have been entrusted to you for the good of all.”

Ironically, the media has become the very power that it was created to challenge.

These words of the Pope took me back to the times when Pakistan’s private broadcast media was in its initial stages of development. There was a great sense of assurance back then, the hope that there would be a might to challenge the already established and monopolised forces and enlighten the minds of our people.

They vowed to carry the sacred mission; the mission of honesty, sincerity and commitment to the truth. Alas.


Originally published by Dawn

Photo Illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan

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