Pakistan Lays Down the Law on Ethics To Tame Unruly Broadcasters

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Aidan White

When media fail to take action to curb ethical malpractice in their newsrooms you can be sure the Government will step in and do it for them. That’s what happened this week in Pakistan.

Acting on the direction of the Supreme Court the Ministry of Information has issued a Code of Conduct which lays down the law to broadcasters guilty of abusing ethical rules in the fight for audience within the country’s highly competitive and over-heated media market.

Some networks have sparked anger after numerous instances of hate speech, high profile intrusion into people’s private lives, and reckless news coverage, much of it in pursuit of sensational stories to drive up ratings.

According to the leading newspaper Dawn lapses and abuse of existing editorial guidelines and standards in broadcasting “have become distressingly common” and there is growing public outrage over the failure of news media to put their own house in order by observing even minimal standards of self-regulation. Although the Pakistan Broadcasting Association has been consulted over the new code, the journalists’ union complains it was sidelined.

Press freedom groups and the civil liberties community have expressed legitimate free speech concerns, but there is also a sense that media houses must shoulder some of the blame for this latest setback.

The first code of conduct regulating broadcasters was produced in 2002. Yet despite the formulation of fresh rules in 2009 by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) many media companies, as Dawn points out, have run rings around the regulator and ignored ethical rules. Attempts by Pemra to impose fines on misbehaving media have had little effect because of legal challenges which take years to pass through Pakistan’s notoriously lengthy and bureaucratic system of justice.

Whether that will change under the new regime remains to be seen but observers hope that the latest code will help get the media back on track. It outlaws a raft of media activities, including unauthorised entry to public places like hospitals and people’s private space; it defines and bans hate speech and acts of unfair discrimination; it outlines protection for minors; obliges media to give people who are criticised a right of reply; and even addresses malpractice in advertising.

Nevertheless, problems remain. The text is sweeping in its language – for instance, the code bans anything being aired which is against Islamic values or “the ideology of Pakistan”, whatever that might be. On the plus side it gives a lifeline to responsible journalism, in theory at least, by allowing broadcasters to touch on controversial issues when there is “overriding public interest”.

The protests of press freedom groups are a reminder of how in the past vague and undefined laws can be used to limit dissent and public debate.

Dawn newspaper is leading calls to reduce this risk and is supporting the creation of a national media monitoring committee. Such a body could limit the threat of political interference, but to be credible it will have to be acceptable to all and independent of the government and political parties.

This will help, but most of all what is needed is for media houses to get their act together and to restore public confidence by introducing their own rules of good governance that will strengthen editorial independence and ethical standards.


Photo: Flickr CC Alan Feebery