Freedom with responsibility


Courtesy: By Malik Muhammad Ashraf | Published: September 13, 2011
   John Wilkes, the pioneer of media freedom in UK during the 18th century, while writing in the first issue of his newspaper known as North Britain, on June 5, 1762, declared: “The liberty of the press is the bright light of Briton and is justly esteemed as the foremost bulwark of the other liberties of this country.” 

         The declaration has won universal approbation and adequately explains why the media enjoys the status of the fourth pillar of the State. A free media is a catalyst of social, political, cultural and economic progress in a society, and is regarded as a flag bearer of national morality; more so, in democratic dispensations. However, freedom of expression does not mean unbridled liberty or a licence to act like a loose cannon. The exercise of the freedom of expression is contingent upon adherence to the recognised social and professional ethics. In other words, freedom with responsibility is the name of the game.
   The introduction of private TV channels or electronic media and accompanying freedom of expression, is probably the best thing that has ever happened in this land of the pure. While it is heartening to see the media enjoying its freedom and guarding it zealously, it is equally disappointing to see the absence of the component of responsibility. There is a discernible propensity to scandalise events, rumour mongering and playing favourites in disregard of the internationally recognised professional ethics; more so, by some TV channels. It is quite an ordeal to watch the current affair programmes and talk shows hosted by some non-professional anchor persons - barring a few exceptions - yelling at the top of their voices at the panelists trying to rub in their peculiar perceptions and getting involved in a debate with them, instead of listening to their views on the questions put to them. Being aggressive in approach is adorable, but descending into an insulting mode is absolutely non-professional and detestable.
They also lack the ability of a professional moderator to control the flow of the arguments, as is evident from their nod to the shouting matches among the participants, presenting a spectacle of the shindigs, rather than serious forums to discuss national issues; so repulsive to the eyes and jarring to the ears. A professional anchor person and host of such shows would always thoroughly brief the participants about the etiquettes of the discussion before coming on air, and also curb his own inclinations to join the melee. Most of them come from the print media and are not well conversant with the professional culture of the electronic media and the art of conducting panel discussions or talk shows. Some even have not worked as journalists at all before landing into the arena. That probably is the reason that these shows look more like an entertainment stuff than the forums for informative and educative debates. No body would grudge an ambience of freedom for the media, but, at the same time, nobody would welcome erratic and irresponsible conduct on its part. The media must be mindful of the fact that its freedom of expression is inextricably linked to responsible behaviour. There are no two opinions about the fact that the media, at present, enjoys unprecedented independence, thanks to the encouraging and tolerant attitude of the government, despite a persistently hostile and provocative stance of some of its sections. That surely is the dividend of democracy.
         There is a need to consolidate the gains of democracy and promote democratic culture in the country in which the media has a pivotal role. Being a representative of the society, it is incumbent upon the media to show unswerving dedication to the cause of democracy and the promotion of national interests. These are, indeed, very serious issues that are required to be handled by thoroughly professional and knowledgeable individuals. In a democratic setup, the government is also under obligation to ensure an unfettered press in the country and its growth on healthy and professional lines. From this perspective, it is encouraging to note that the government is contemplating to set up a media university in Islamabad in collaboration with China. An understanding for the establishment of the university was reached between the two countries during Information Minister Dr Firdous Awan’s visit to China to attend an International Conference of Information Ministers on the eve of China-Eurasia Expo. The two sides also appointed focal persons to expedite work on the MOU for the establishment of Shaheed Benazir Bhutto Institute of Media Sciences. The setting up of these institutions will, hopefully, help in strengthening the professional competence of media persons, and the evolution of a professional and ethical code of conduct like it was done by the media institutions in America in the nineteen century.
     While the media is a watchdog of indiscretions of the government, the government is a watchdog of undesirable behaviour of the media. That relationship needs to be respected and strengthened.
      This is an age of self-regulation and less intervention by the governments. In several democratic countries, the media with encouragement and support of the governments has taken upon itself the role of ensuring adherence to professional ethics and redressing complaints against irresponsible, non-professional, unethical and erratic behaviour of an electronic channel or a newspaper. In this regard, a 19-member Press Council headed by a Chairman appointed by the government from among the judges of the higher judiciary, is already functional. The other members include four representatives each from APNS, CPNE, PFUJ, one each from Pakistan Bar Council, National Commission on Status of Women, HEC, leader of the house and leader of the opposition in the National Assembly and one mass media educationist. It is hoped that this body will be able to design a comprehensive, professional and ethical code of conduct for the media in Pakistan in line with the internationally recognised principles of professional journalism tailored to our specific social environment that would enable the media as well as the government to play their complementary roles for the development of the country in an effective manner. The sooner it is done the better.
The writer is a freelance columnist.
Email:ashpak10@gmail.com

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