Dangerous direction - Hajrah Mumtaz - Monday 18th April 2011

MOST governments have had to accept that the news media’s investigative and reportage role can often force through substantive and visible changes in real situations.
In places where the news media are free to even a relative degree, the actions of state and other actors are under constant spotlight and can come under substantial review by the media. This causes a certain circumspectness in language and behaviour, and that power is what allows the news media to be referred to as the ‘Fourth Estate’: an enforcer of checks and balances.
This is true of Pakistan too, with its no-longer-new, liberalised media. The transgressions or inappropriate actions can range from the mundane to the ridiculous.
Remember the story last autumn, for example, about a Mianwali relief camp for the flood-hit that was visited by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani? The news crews took footage of him meeting the flood victims and distributing cheques. But when they returned to the camp a little while later, there was nothing there. It turned out that the whole ‘camp’ had been a public relations exercise staged for the benefit of the media itself. The ‘victims’ to whom the prime minister had handed cheques had
been rounded up for the news crews’ benefit.
Such a boo-boo is more likely to raise a smirk rather than outrage. The prime minister’s concern was hardly in any real doubt, after all, and everyone suspects that such PR stunts would be carried out from time to time. Nevertheless, such exposure by the media should serve to remind people of the media’s power to uncover stories and smokescreens. To news organisations, it should give rise to introspection regarding stories where they have been found wanting in this regard. We uncovered the PR stunt. But what else did we uncover, or fail to uncover?
Take, for example, the allegations that have been in the news in recent years that the country’s security forces may be involved in human rights abuses in the north-western parts of the country and in Balochistan. Various international and local rights organisations say that the law-enforcement bodies are resorting to tactics ranging from abductions and torture to extra-judicial killings. In Balochistan, the euphemistically named ‘missing persons’ issue has been commented upon by the courts.
So why is it that while rights organisations can claim to have gathered primary data to back up their allegations, the news media cannot claim the same? The country’s media outlets appear to have made very little effort to investigate and either verify or not verify the claims made by rights groups, other than report on the latest press release or official/judicial statement. For some time (though thankfully, no longer), these very serious issues were not even given the space and focus in the news that they should have.
Similarly, there is little in the news media that gives us a properly detailed picture of the situation in which last year’s flood-displaced find themselves in, or that of the IDPs who have been repatriated to their villages in the north-western parts of the country where the military operation is/was under way. Mostly what one sees in the media are statistical stories, sometimes pegged along human interest lines, often compiled from reports issued by international aid or monitoring agencies.
Disparate though these issues are, they are important and they have tended to receive far from adequate attention.
In defence of the media, it is true that the areas where these stories are developing are difficult to access and particularly in terms of the operation against the militants or in Balochistan, independent reporting is difficult without pandering to the whims of either the militants or the security-enforcement personnel.
This produces the sort of embedded journalism that has often been discussed on these pages. Also, there are difficulties such as the lack of resources, inadequate professional training of correspondents and stringers and misplaced notions of what the public may be interested in.
Nevertheless, we cannot get away from the fact that this is not what is to be expected of a media that makes claims of outspokenness and independence in the manner that the Pakistani media do. It is just not befitting.
Pakistan is a country of many, many news stories, all the time, and there is running news to take up practically every hour. In this respect, the Pakistani media often do well, and we tend to get the immediate news very fast. Running news aplenty translates into fewer resources, including manpower and funds, to divert towards investigative, contextual reports that take long days to research and sometimes even longer to put together. Nevertheless, the lack of follow-through cannot be excused.
The Pakistani media industry must turn its attention towards this deficiency. Unless we have investigative and contextual reportage bolstering running news stories, there is great danger that the public will see each fresh piece of news as a stand-alone item, with next to no background and context, and therefore shorn of sense. There would be no way to link things up into a greater pattern, and therefore little ground to lobby for policy change.
In order to really be able to call itself the Fourth Estate, Pakistan’s media need to break stories and reports that can constitute grounds for prompting policy review and other sorts of shifts. Debate must be fostered, and it must be done by more than just talk shows and news analyses.
In its current iteration, the news media in Pakistan are headed in a dangerous direction. On one hand, there are allegations that some newspersons have taken up hard-line ideologies and are presenting them through their columns and shows. On the other, there is a dearth of contextual work. Together, they are creating an environment of public ignorance and professional laxness.
The writer is a member of staff.


Source : http://www.dawn.com/2011/04/18/dangerous-direction.html

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