Dr. Mehdi Hasan is the Vice Chairperson (Punjab) of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and the Dean of School of Media & Communication at Beaconhouse National University.
Agenda for Pakistani Press by Dr. Mehdi Hasan, Dated, December 14, 1998
The Pakistani press played an active role during the crisis between the two tiers of the executive, the president and the prime minister, and the judiciary. It stood divided into two separate camps - the pro-president and pro-prime minister.
The press here thrives on political crises, reproducing thecomments of different people and groups about various political ,social economic or religious issues -seldom trying to ascertain facts.
In the process it has created a large number of “newspaper leaders” and organisations, who have no credibility, and have repeatedly been rejected by the masses through the democratic process. Their existence depends solely on getting published in the newspapers To stay in the limelight, many of them have switched party loyalties and political stands several times over the last fifty years.
Described by the press as “elderly or “senior”, they wait for a crisis to surface and immediately call conferences and meetings of like -minded , not-so-successful colleagues.
Newspapers in Pakistan got the freedom to report (without the right to know) in 1988, after the death of military dictator General Ziaul Haq. The policy of granting declarations for new newspapers ventures was also liberalised. The party based electoral process and comparatively liberal policies resulted in the growth of the press.
A large number of newspapers, mostly owned by not so credible owners, emerged overnight, creating jobs for journalists and editors. The pre-1988 figures of 260-300 journalists swelled to 700 in Lahore alone. Several sub-editors and crime reporters became ‘editors’ as most owners of the new ventures had no credentials for this sensitive profession, paving the way for a large number of untrained and unprofessional persons to enter journalism. The institution of editor gave way to un-professional political appointees’.
The new breed of journalists lacks the sense and ability to interpret and analyse situations and are only good at reproducing ‘statements’ by a leader or so-called leader. If the system of justice was properly organised in the country , most reports published could be proceeded against for libel and slander.
Column writing suffered the most. The institution of Urdu column writing was started by Maulana Ghulam Rasul Meher and Maulana Abdul Majid Salik much before independence. Ibrahim Jalees, Maulana Chiragh Hasan Hasrat and Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi dominated after independence, During the 60s and 770s Munnoo Bhai and Intezar Hussain stood out.
The last Martial Law was responsible for creating several columnists who through their writings wanted to communicate their close relationship with the military dictator. After 1988, Urdu journalism saw a mushroom growth of “columnists”, mostly part-time journalists who use newspapers space to project themselves or publicize their contacts with the ruling elites. Their writings are so personalised that readers seldom come across a piece in which “mein” is not repeated several times.
Developments in the field of technology and the availability of alternate channels of information to the general public has created a ‘credibility crisis’ and the media in Pakistan is losing ‘believability’ . In a free society, believability is vital for the survival of an institution like press. Since major of our newspapers are filled by what the politicians say, and the politicians and politics in Pakistan have no ethics, coverage of politicians, personal ethics has damaged the credibility of the press.
Newspapers can get better grades for believability if they present straightforward news, separated from opinion. The statements issued by politicians , more often than not, are their personal opinions. To publish opinions in the news columns is to avoid the responsibility of providing the public hard facts.
About two hundred years ago, when the press was still new in the sub-continent, it assumed the role of a partisan, with a clear division of Muslim and Hindu journalism. In those days each newspaper would attack and defend from a particular position. Respect for truth and reality was usually missing.
Most literates in Pakistan derive information from the newspapers, but the press is certainly not the only medium engaged in discovering and reporting the truth. Lots of other people, organisations including political, non-political and non-governmental organisations, courts, interest groups and scores of concerned citizens also inform the public.
The press is biased against the minority views - since it thrives on reproducing the utterances of the politicians, who have to play upon the popular sentiments for their survival. The bias for the beliefs of the majority is prominent - untenable in a free democratic society where press claims to be the watchdog for the underpriveleged and the exploited. In a democratic society, an average citizen has both the right and ability to decide the appropriate course of public policy. Therefore, he must be informed about the range and quality of the options available. One way to achieve this is to encourage the full diversity of competing views by providing unlimited freedom of speech and the press.
Journalists occupy a crucial position, for they decide which views and spokesperson will be heard. If the reporting is accurate, fair, and comprehensive, the content is determined by the participant. But if the second or not so popular opinion is blacked out or reported ion a negative manner then the whole debate becomes one-sided and biased. The journalists then becomes an active participant in the debate with the power and inclination to modify its agenda.
The constant emphasis on news that would make sensational copy denies the public the range of information it needs to guide its decisions. In these circumstances the press cannot adequately discharge its task of ensuring a well-informed public. This strikes at the very root of the democratic process.
The post-industrial world is developing revolutionary ways of transmitting information. Print journalists are only one of the sources of information, and thus not as important in the 19th or mid-20th century. They have to compete with other advanced methods of communication. Therefore, it would be both in their interest and the institution of the press, if they stoop considering themselves as one of the powerful interest groups, against whom they profess to campaign.