Pakistan's news media is under increasing fire for its questionable ethics, not from its usual critics, but from within its own ranks.
Pakistani media face a crisis of ethics
ISLAMABAD // Pakistan's news media is coming under increasing fire for its questionable ethics, not from its usual critics in the government, but from within its own ranks. At the heart of the debate that has been raging for months on journalists' blogs such as PKPolitics.com and FriendsKorner.com, is the widely perceived pro-government bias of many popular current affairs programme hosts and newspaper columnists. Often, the host and columnist are, in fact, one and the same, a coincidence that a growing number of journalists find disturbing because of the extraordinary influence and subsequent room for abuse this blurred line affords. "The leading political chat show hosts all open their shows with statements like 'today, we will create a consensus' or 'today, we will establish ?'. In fact, they are declaring their intention to stuff their own political agenda down the guests' throats, failing which they invariably humiliate them," said Zafar Malik, a former head of news and current affairs at two cable news channels, CNBC Pakistan and Samaa. Like many journalists who took up their trade during the unforgiving military dictatorship of Gen Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s, Mr Malik is saddened by the decline in ethics that has accompanied a rapid expansion in the number of privately owned news channels since 2002. Ironically, the decision to open the floodgates was taken by Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's then military dictator, who concluded that appeased media proprietors would prove useful allies in his subsequent quest to extend his extra-constitutional rule. Far from being naïve, he had every reason to believe the strategy would work. The state had at its disposal a formidable array of carrots with which to buy the loyalty of journalists, including quotas of cut-price residential plots in government and military property developments that, on average, guarantee the recipient an instant 400 per cent return on investment. Such above-board perks - the plot scheme was sanctioned by the journalists union - were supplemented by covert incentives, including large sums of cash provided by the intelligence agencies during times of political crisis; several anchors said they were offered three million rupees each before the February 2008 general elections to be sympathetic to pro-Musharraf candidates. "There is no dearth of corrupt people in the Pakistani media. Some are corrupted with plots, some with overseas junkets, and some are on the payrolls of intelligence agencies and political parties, but there is no accountability for any of them," said Ansar Abbasi, investigations editor of The News, an English newspaper. However, corruption of the media - a strategy pursued with equal vigour by democratic governments before and after the Musharraf regime - was doomed to failure because of the intense competition between the channels Mr Musharraf had helped to create. Ultimately, the news media played a decisive role in forcing him to resign last year and his successor to the presidency, Asif Ali Zardari, to reinstate the country's chief justice in March. The channels and their newspaper associates (cross-media ownership is the norm), it seemed, had just cause to celebrate their success in stirring the public conscience into upholding the independence of the judiciary. But their subsequent coverage of the militant insurgency in north-west Pakistan has since exposed shortcomings, particularly a tendency to perpetuate a sense of crisis in the rush to be first to break the story, a process that more often than not ignores the "three-source confirmation" rule of objective reporting. A typical example was the terrorist storming of a police training school in Lahore in March, when channels boosted the number of victims to 27 before retreating to the actual figure of eight, plus three militants. "The media blows everything out of proportion" is a quote that has become attributable to many of Pakistan's avid television watchers and, ironically, has given rise to the new "News, responsibly" slogan of PTV News, the state channel. An inadvertent but positive outcome of the recent boom in the Pakistani media is that younger, more idealistic journalists have earned rapid promotions and it is they who have begun to challenge the corruption and one-upmanship undermining their profession. Mohammed Ahmed Noorani, a reporter for The News, helped set the tone this year by telephoning a top Urdu newspaper columnist and asking him to confirm or deny allegations that he had accepted bribes in cash and kind from the government. While the story was never published, he posted a recording of the apparently inebriated columnist's abusive response on the Web that instantly became a rallying cry for others. Mr Abbasi, his senior colleague at The News, took the next step by issuing a public statement of regret for having acquired residential plots in government schemes and returning the title deeds, prompting several other high profile journalists to follow suit. Optimists see this as a harbinger of better things to come, but concede that change will be slow. "The point is that the more you open up, the less room for manoeuvre there will be for journalists with vested interests," said Nadeem Malik, a current affairs host for Aaj News. "I think the media is heading in that direction, but it needs more time and qualitative competition to attain ethical maturity." firstname.lastname@example.org