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A Free Press? What if Wapping were Islamabad?

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Lord Hunt of Wirral has proposed a revamp of the Press Complaints Commission, which he now chairs. His is a serious and considered response to the complex issues being considered with great dexterity by Lord Justice Leveson's historic inquiry.

The challenges faced by Leveson and Hunt are daunting - but transposing their activities to Pakistan would prove formidable even for men of such intellect, skill and diplomacy.

Pakistan has witnessed a huge increase in the number of private news channels in the last decade. Previously, the market was monopolised by a single state-owned television network that was heavily influenced by government functionaries and provided limited information access to the public.

Today, the people of Pakistan can watch dozens of news channels and hope to get more credible information in real time. However, the emerging situation has also spawned new questions and challenges that must be confronted to improve the overall quality of journalism in the country.

Many applaud Pakistan's media for playing a significant role in the reinstatement of the country's superior judiciary, bringing down the Musharraf-led administration, creating the environment for the restoration of democracy and frequently challenging corrupt politicians and the political system of Pakistan. On the flipside, many condemn it for glorifying militants, spewing hatred and creating despondency among people. Who is right?

Pakistan's media organisations were in the forefront of exposing 'disappearances' across the country and raising many other human rights violations at a time when the U.S.-led 'war on terror' was in its full bloom. However, the same news channels also got many other things wrong and failed to create clarity about some vital issues that could have had existential implications for their state.

Pakistan's decision to side with the United States in the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks was frequently criticised by the mainstream news channels. Few of them realised that Islamabad did not have the option of staying neutral in the 'war on terror' since it was deeply involved in Afghanistan and supported the Taliban regime that harboured Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. They also accused the government of fighting the U.S. war at a time when diehard militant factions were using their country's soil not only to export violence in other parts of the region but also to target innocent civilians and security forces in their own country. Subsequently, the media's discourse strengthened the militant propaganda and weakened the state's ability to take the ownership of the war and swiftly respond to the challenge at hand.

Some journalists believe that some high-profile anchors working with leading Urdu-language news channels were pursuing the rightwing agenda on purpose. But a closer examination of the internal landscape of these organisations can also provide us more insight into this phenomenon.

Looking at the growing influence of Pakistan's private news channels, it is sometimes easy to forget that they are relatively new to the business and have employed young journalists with limited field experience. While these journalists have brought fresh energy to the local broadcast industry and have become intimately involved in policy debates and political and decision making processes, they have also been required to venture into areas which were previously viewed as the preserve of senior journalists with concrete skill sets and proven track record of serious journalism. Some young journalists are now seen as performers as much as reporters. Bombastic talk shows and sensationalised issues keep the ratings of their channels high. So Pakistan's media stands accused of committing a number of professional felonies. Private news channels are believed to be suffering from the breaking news syndrome - get things fast, not right.

This raises a credibility issue, something that was reflected in the media coverage after the U.S. Navy SEALs launched the Abbottabad operation in May 2011. Some of the leading Pakistani news channels kept displaying a fake image of Osama bin Laden's corpse for several hours without confirming its authenticity.

The broadcasting of graphic images after terror attacks spreads greater anxiety among people, creating an impression that the local media is unwittingly playing into the hands of militant groups who are doing their best to strike terror into people's hearts.

Media accountability remains limited. While most journalists remain understandably suspicious of government's attempts to regulate their industry, they have fallen short of formulating their own code of conduct to display their sense of social responsibility and commitment to quality journalism.

When a senior DawnNews journalist, Matiullah Jan, launched a programme to expose the irregularities of the media in Pakistan, there was a backlash from among his own community. The show was stopped by the management of the news channel and the anchor was excommunicated by some of his close friends.

Mr Jan asserts that the extent of media freedom continues to fluctuate in Pakistan since "it is one issue that is usually determined on political, rather than legal, grounds." Unlike most of his fellow journalists, however, he feels that media regulations may not be entirely bad for journalists.

Last year, the government revived the Press Council of Pakistan to receive complaints against news organisations. However, the Council has not accomplished much so far and its mandate and mode of functioning is opaque.

The media needs to devise a proper self-regulating code of conduct, acceptable to all stakeholders in the industry, within a proper and obligatory framework that does not only focus on their responsibilities but also extends them security and provides them with freedom of information and expression. The fact that such a code has not been formulated so far reflects the extent of fragmentation and lack of confidence among the media community.

According to one journalist, who attended a recent Agahi workshop in Lahore organized by Mishal Pakistan, the country's journalists are represented by different media bodies. "Most of these associations," he contended, "are at cross-purposes with each other. The groups that represent the owners do not speak for the rights of their employees and impose greater responsibilities on them. The media organisations representing the working journalists, on the other hand, view things differently and tend to hold the owners accountable as well."

Whatever may be said about this problem, responsible journalists mostly understand the rudimentary principles of journalism and do not sacrifice their commitment to their profession at the altar of their organisation's commercial interests. Technically, therefore, it should not be difficult for them to devise a proper code of conduct.

Perhaps, after they have finished dealing with the British media, Lord Justice Leveson and Lord Hunt should offer their combined talents to Islamabad? They might be there a long time.

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