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Free debates? Forget it

By Ghazi Salahuddin, published in The News

In Ziaul Haq’s days, particularly during press censorship, I had this tongue-in-cheek answer to any question about what was happening: “How do I know? I work in a newspaper”.

Times have certainly changed – drastically when it comes to the state of the media. Now no one asks me about the news. They know. Instead, they want me to decipher whatever conspiracy theory they may have embraced that day. And there’s the rub.

Ideally, the media should be able to interpret and expound the questions that bother concerned citizens at any given time. In addition, it should be possible for readers of newspapers and viewers of television channels to somehow interact with opinion writers, anchors and panellists who deal with current affairs.

In that sense, the media provides a platform for a rational debate on major issues. One of my favourite quotations about a newspaper is that it is the nation talking to itself. Ideally, the quality of this conversation should define the purpose and credibility of the media. This exercise should enhance popular awareness of the issues which generally make headlines. Does that happen, given the media that we have?

Well, these thoughts are initially prompted by the World Press Freedom Day that was observed on Thursday. The focus obviously is on the importance of a free media. But I am also mindful of the larger issue of how the Pakistani mind has been shaped by the overall environment created by an incomprehensible mix of messages delivered by known and unknown sources.

In this environment, the National Assembly can try and change the name of the physics department at the Quaid-e-Azam University just like that. There is no reflection or debate.

One response to World Press Freedom Day is to realise that the media in Pakistan, at this time, is in a deep crisis. Things are exceptionally bad from various points of view. The pressures are such that self-censorship has become the defence mechanism of most media practitioners. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, for instance, has taken a serious view of the sharp decline in press freedom in the country over the last several months.

Incidentally, the theme of the World Press Freedom Day this year was: ‘Keeping power in check: media, justice and rule of law’. This underlines the vital role that an independent judiciary plays in protecting the freedom of the media. A free media promotes sustainable development, and its function as a watchdog becomes more crucial during elections. A free media fosters transparency, accountability and rule of law.

I had to devote some thought to the subject because of my participation in a seminar held to mark the press freedom day at Szabist’s Department of Social Sciences. It had its own topic: ‘Electronic media in Pakistan: challenges and issues’. Any discourse on media in the present situation would inevitably lead you in many different directions, some even blind alleys.

We had messages on the day by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Unesco Director-General Audrey Azoulay. Ms Azoulay said: “The ideal of a state under the rule of law calls for well-informed citizens, transparent political decisions, public debates on topics of common interest and a plurality of viewpoints that shapes opinions and undermines official truths and dogmatism”.

Pakistan, sadly, figures very poorly in the mirror of these observations. In the first place, our citizens are not well-informed. They do not demand a high level of ethical professionalism from working journalists. Consequently, the standards are mostly not acceptable. Hence, the media does not insist, through a judicious exercise of the power it has, that our political decisions are transparent.

Personally, I would give high priority to holding public debates which project and validate contending point of views so that opinions that are shaped can assist in the democratic resolution of various differences. A seemingly insurmountable barrier to open discussions is the atmosphere of religious extremism and intolerance. The ruling ideas that the media is not able to question tend to be in cahoots with the bigotry of the extremists.

Against this backdrop, I was pleasantly surprised to read about a Yale University research this week that concluded that newspaper op-eds – opinion articles on the editorial and the opposite pages – do change minds. Given the reading habits that we have, this finding is hard to believe here. I constantly worry about the number of people who get to read the words that I write and am sure that this number is not at all impressive.

Besides, the overall mood is set by talk shows on news channels and they, I suspect, have greatly contributed to the de-intellectualisation of the Pakistani society. The debate is rarely conducted in a sober and logical way. Quite a few such anchors and regular panellists inject the triviality of the talk shows into the veins of the print media via their own columns. In fact, the traffic should have been in the reverse direction. The irony here is that those who are now senior professionals in channels were almost all recruited from the print media.

This means that a study done in, say, in the US should not be valid for a country where serious debates are not held even on campuses of leading universities. Think of Mashal Khan. Our problem is also the predominance of illiterate as well as poorly educated consumers of the media. They just do not have access to newspapers, magazines and books.

Irrespective of our peculiar circumstances, the Yale study provides evidence “that op-ed columns are an effective means for changing people’s minds about the issues of the day”. The researchers found that op-eds have “large and long-lasting effects on people’s views both among the general public and policy experts”.

There is no need here to dwell upon the methodology of this study or go into details. But it is surely very reassuring and should inspire confidence in the ability of the media to perform its assigned role of creating an informed public opinion and presiding over a free and fair national debate. This is how the media can nurture democratic values and help in the development of a knowledge and information-based society.

But this cheerful scenario, alas, does not bear any relevance to the reality of Pakistan. Our media, despite the no-holds-barred partisan babble on some news channels, is not free.

The writer is a senior journalist.


Source: The News

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