The Cyril Almeida story had news value and a spin. The imperative headline made it more so. Running a story driven only from “sources” and speculation is debatable; however senior editors may have approved and defended it. It is an exaggeration to equate it with Pentagon Papers. That the story carries verifiable facts is beyond question as almost all journalists of reckoning in Islamabad claim to have been contacted by “sources” trying to feed them the same facts.
The government reaction further corroborated the story and exposed the split in the ranks of the ruling party. It is this split that the reporter says he has taken benefit of. The botched up attempts to do damage control landed the issue into the arena of independence of media and freedom of speech. Mainstream media was quick to issue cathartic statements that they have won the battle for independence, partially or fully.
This quick flick raises some questions that need answers. The key question is: Was this the fight for independence of media? To answer this question, we need to know the perceptions about independence of media. They are many, the strongest among which denotes that governments should not dictate media.
This concept is more like the concept of a media marketing agent. True governments should not intervene in media business which ideally is to inform, entertain and educate the masses. But what we see goes far far beyond these three textbook functions of media. Before we look at these functions, there is a need to decipher that other than media and governments, there is a stakeholder nobody wants to talk about – the masses.
The masses are being force-fed what media has for them. They are being shown on news channels day and night that certain orators are their leaders fighting one another. On entertainment channels, they see that somebody gets into trouble, in most cases a female, and then gets out of it. They live the lives of these perceived leaders and characters unbeknown to the fact that these characters have a real life which is nothing like what they are forced to see.
The masses have lost even sense of reality. They are no more able to state that the fights they fight are theirs and the characters they live have nothing in common with them. In the language of mass communication, it is called “false gratification”. Can in this state media call itself independent only because Almeida was put off ECL? Does not independence mean that the masses be given their right to choice so that they can have or reject what they now know as the Almeida Affair among many other things?
Sure their right to choice defines media independence and press freedom because a media failing to give them diversity of content has no justification to call itself independent. It is function of media to offer the audience different shades of what is happening around them, enabling them to draw a picture on a broader canvass and make informed decisions and choices. The media that fails to carry out this basic function has no right to stake a claim to independence because it would just be another attempt to fool the masses, which it should be ashamed of.
The blogger is an ICFJ, Washington fellow and a PhD candidate.