Freedom of expression and the media’s freedom are usually considered interchangeable. They are often misconstrued to mean that no curbs can be imposed on the fourth pillar of the state.
This is notwithstanding the fact that almost all ethical and professional codes drawn up by international media representative bodies expect media organisations to exhibit responsibility while reporting and commenting. The truth is that there is no concept of an unbridled freedom of expression across the globe.
The code of ethics issued by the Society of Professional Journalists in the US emphasises and describes the conduct of journalists in the following words: “… journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information… [they should] test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error as deliberate distortion is never permissible”.
Delving on the issue, the American Society of News Editors’ statement of principles states: “Good faith with the reader is the foundation of good journalism. Every effort should be made to ensure that the news content is accurate, free from bias and in context and that all sides are presented fairly. Editorials, analytical articles and commentary should be held to the same standards of accuracy with respect to facts as news reports. Significant errors of fact, as well as errors of omission should be corrected promptly”.
The declaration of principles on the conduct of journalists issued by the International Federation of Journalists states, “respect for truth and for the right of the public to truth is the first duty of the journalist”. The Council of Pakistan News Paper Editors reiterates the importance of truthful and accurate reporting in the following words: “The press shall avoid biased reporting or publication of unverified material and avoid the expression of comments and conjectures as established fact. Generalisation based on the behavior of an individual or small number of individuals shall be termed unethical”.
Even in countries where self-regulatory mechanisms of the media through press councils are in vogue, the element of truthful and responsible reporting is invariably enshrined in the code of conduct for the media. On the global level, government intervention is also recognised as a necessary initiative to ensure that the rules of the game are not violated and the media – while enjoying freedom – respect the law of the land as well.
A glance at the media landscape in Pakistan reveals that while the media is zealously safeguarding its freedom, there is much to be desired with regard to its professional conduct and duty towards society. Viewers are often provided wrong, speculative and misleading information about various issues. A recent example of false and misleading reporting involves Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Davos to participate in the World Economic Forum (WEF), with one report saying that the prime minister had attended the event even though he was not invited by the forum. The report also stated he was stopped from addressing the forum owing to his involvement in a corruption scandal. The news report was immediately contradicted by none other than the WEF spokesperson.
In a letter written to the reporter, the spokesperson said: “The forum was delighted that Nawaz Sharif… participated in the annual meeting 2017 in Davos from [January 17 to January 20]. The prime minister has been invited by the World Economic Forum and his agenda was prepared in consultation with his office, keeping in mind their objectives and key priorities. This included several meetings with key leaders from business and politics”.
The letter by the forum clearly indicated that the prime minister was not scheduled to address the forum at all. As a result, the question of preventing him from addressing the forum did not arise.
Referring to a confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill and the appointment of the Trump administration’s new ambassador to UN, a journalist claimed that the meeting was Israel-centric. According to the journalist, the rocky relations between Pakistan and India over Kashmir never received due attention at the hearing and the plight of Kashmiris mattered little to the lawmakers or the US government. She blamed Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the UN Maleeha Lodhi for failing to brief Pakistan-friendly US senators on Kashmir and the foreign affairs ministry and successive governments for not giving the priority to the Kashmir cause.
The journalist was right to the extent that the issue of Kashmir is not a matter of concern for US lawmakers and the government. But the indifference shown by the US over the Kashmir issue does not emanate from the failure of our diplomats and government to sensitise American leaders about the current state of affairs in the valley. It stems from the US looking at the developments in this part of the world through the prism of its commercial and strategic interests. The US feels its interests are better served by a maintaining a tilt towards India – which it is propping up as a counterbalance against China.
In all fairness, the Kashmir cause has been relentlessly advocated by the present government at all the international forums, including the prime minister’s addresses to the UN General Assembly and his recent interaction with the new UN general secretary on the sidelines of the WEF. The government has also sensitised the world about Indian atrocities in Kashmir.
Maleeha Lodhi has played a proactive role in this regard and has raised this issue in her various discourses at the UN and meetings with US legislators. These efforts have also been extensively reported in the Pakistani media. Our ambassador has also played an active role in this regard.
These examples suggest that it is imperative for our reporters, columnists and media commentators to strictly abide by the ethical and professional codes of conduct that forbid misreporting and the impulsive propensity to denigrate government functionaries and institutions in complete disregard of the ground realities. This is the call of their duty.