With the technological advances of the 20th century, and those anticipated in the 21st, media has become a most potent weapon both in peace and in war. However its role as the guardians of the oppressed carries most relevance for civilization. Working without any fear or restraint a free media is the best check on excess of any kind by anyone or any entity having the potential and the inclination to inflict excess. What to talk about individuals, even nations feel the heat that the media can generate on any wrongdoing. Conversely, influence over a “free” media allows the generating of excess without undue hue and cry.
The mass media, in particular the printed press, enjoys a special status which gives them protection against conventional social policies. This freedom is a vital element a safeguard of human rights in a democratic and civil society, media autonomy must be respected and defended. The exceptional degree of autonomy carries duties and responsibilities that calls for regulation both on legal and ethical levels i.e. the media must also be accountable. It would be both sociologically and politically naive to place media outside of any social controls. Accountability can conceptually be divided into various levels and aspects, including law and ethics. The mass media is regulated by legal and financial means to a degree determined by the political balance of power prevailing in each society. And there is little that the professional and academic community can do about it, but there is an untapped potential for indirect participation in the democratic process of media accountability through media criticism. The media criticism called for is not the kind of politically motivated interest group advocacy that is well known everywhere but scientifically based description and assessment of media performance, carried out by methods of content analysis. The reasoning follows the correspondence theory of truth: comparing media coverage with extramedia data. However, truth checking can be left aside, why pay so much attention to content, especially at a time of media concentration and globalization? The mass-mediated content constitutes a strategic part of broader reasoning about freedom and accountability, and ultimately media’s role in democracy.
Propaganda is ‘ a deliberate attempt to persuade people, by any available media, to think and then behave in a manner desired by the source. It is really the means to an end.” Propaganda is a process and in the present age the media have become very useful tools of propaganda. Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman offered a ‘propaganda model’ of how the mainstream media work in the USA, this “traces the routes by which money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalise dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interest to get their messages across to the public.” They mentioned a number of ingredients or set of news “filters” through which information must pass, viz (1) ownership of the dominant mass media firms; (2) advertising as their income source and (3) the media are dependant on government and business industries as information sources.
The three major propositions of the Chomsky-Herman study were, viz (1) media perceptions and representations of other countries are highly biased, selective and stereotyped (2) mainstream media usually become the agents of government and elite propaganda and are obstacles to regional peace and stability, eroding its integrity as neutral observer of truth to a certain extent. For example, the Indian media mainly reflect elite consensus and neglect the voices of the subjugated, the causes of minorities being given lower priority. In foreign policy and inter-State matters, the media often take a pro-establishment tone and (3) media plays a significant role in fuelling ethno-religious conflicts, having far-reaching implications for an entire region. These are highly interconnected in terms of religion and ethnicity, media’s jingoistic postures only aggravate the existing situations.
We must highlight objectives necessary for good governance of society and the fight against corruption viz (1) generate media support for the fight against corruption (2) determine means to ensure the freedom and independence of the media and (3) develop an improved understanding for the media’s potential for preventing and combating corruption.
The first requirement is to obtain transparency in government functioning and the availability of better access to information. One of the major reasons of corruption is that information is denied to the public under the pretext of confidentiality. Except for a very few areas of national security, there is nothing in the country that requires any classification. This camouflage must be removed from all public dealing and the media particularly must be allowed to function in bringing transparency into all transactions. At the same time no one or entity should be allowed to interfere with the level of freedom and independence of the media. This is a sacred trust that should not be violated. Both the democratic and military regimes have supported free media, but a few incidents did take place during the democratic regimes that were unsavoury, quite counter-productive to this concept. The Faisalabad baton-charge recently during the Presidential referendum campaign was completely out of character of the present military regime. Given their rock-bottom salaries and incentives the media is vulnerable to this evil in society, the media itself has to watch out for corruption among their own ranks. What is really required is a self-developed code of ethics and integrity.
The media has a very substantial role in exposing corruption. The guilty do not like public attention and while investigative journalism is not that developed in Pakistan as in the western world, it certainly has great potential. The problem is that investigative journalism is anathema to both the public sector as well as the media’s commercial transactions. Both the government (in third world countries like Pakistan) and free enterprise control advertisements that fuels the cash flow of the media balance sheet. Controlling the purse-strings gives then virtual VETO powers over investigative journalism. Whereas in developed countries such journalists are considered top of the line for any media corporate entity, in Pakistan the media bosses barely tolerate their presence. While curbing the powers of bureaucracy may not be an attainable goal in the present circumstances, can we really expect investigative journalism targetting corporate entities like ENRON, TYCO, XEROX, WORLDCOM, etc? Do people in Pakistan know that ADT is a subsidiary of TYCO? Would any accounting firm be subjected to cynosure in the media like Arthur Andersen has been in the US? There must be a law to protect the rights of whistleblowers, both in the media exposing wrongdoers, and those giving them the information. Of the greatest of importance is the fact that we have to make our politicians accountable. Today people seem to enter public life mostly with the intention of looting the till. Despite NAB’s best efforts the biggest crooks are still vying for political leadership in the future. They serve as bad models which our youth tend to emulate. We must not do selective accountability as we are doing now but target all who enrich themselves at the expense of the State. A free media is the best possible support that NAB can have in a country where the excesses are many but the evidence non-existent.
Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).