In the ongoing political saga, a worrying trend has been the polarisation within the media. Since the Panama trial started media outlets especially television channels have been airing partisan coverage of events. Now that Nawaz Sharif stands disqualified, we have a few TV channels that are ready to send him to prison and have pronounced Sharif guilty even before the criminal trial has commenced. Another set of TV channels is adamant in proving Sharif not only innocent but also a hero of democracy. The truth, of course, lies somewhere between the two extreme positions. If the media’s task is to inform, then the millions who watch TV debates are not getting an impartial picture of events as they are unfolding.
A similar divide is reflected in the digital media. If one were to filter through the ‘trolls’ of both the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and its ‘nemesis’ Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), it becomes clear that polarisation by and large mirrors the agenda by the mainstream media. The latter whose personalities, especially the anchorpersons, are shaping the public opinion even on social media. This is problematic as new media outlets were meant to challenge the limits or distortions of the old guard.
With paid teams of all parties trying to “trend” on social media, the line between information and propaganda has been blurred. Mainstream media outlets have also fielded their own social media warriors in an attempt to sway the political discourse in line with their network’s editorial positions and policies. As is the case on TV debates, the line between analysis and speculation, critique and defamation has also disappeared.
The “fake news” syndrome especially on digital media attracted global attention especially in the wake of Trump winning the United States presidential elections last year.It was alleged that Trump’s communications team used the fake news phenomenon to their full advantage. So we are not alone in this mess. Earlier, a similar trend was reported at the time of Brexit poll. We now know that many people voted for Brexit because of the deliberately manipulated news they read online that made rounds on new media outlets.
So much for the media’s grandiose claim of being the “people’s voice”.
It is time that the Parliament paid some attention to this issue. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) needs to enforce its guidelines. It also needs to sit with the media owners and editors to improve these, curb fake news trends, defamation and urge the broadcasters to stand by their code of conduct issued with much fanfare some time back.
Our advice by no means is to enable the government bodies find more excuses to further curb the right to free speech especially online. Social media are self or peer-regulated otherwise they wouldn’t be called ‘social’ media. The technology companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter are working on their own mechanisms to minimise the circulation of fake news. We should be a part of that endeavour. Media freedoms cannot be divorced from responsibility. The line between information and disinformation must be clearly marked and visible. *
Published in Daily Times, August 12th 2017.