Irresponsible journalism must end

With elections around the corner, this kind of journalistic integrity is the need of the hour. No one will gain from irresponsible journalism

‘With great power comes great responsibility’ is a phrase commonly reserved for the larger than life characters leaping and bouncing across the big screen. But in today’s age, it is equally applicable to news channels. Technological advancement has altered power dynamics; information has become a bargaining chip. Thus those controlling its dissemination have become powerful. Yet they fail to be responsible.

Recently, anchorperson Shahid Masood apologised before the honourable court for misstating facts regarding the culprit in Zainab’s rape and murder case. Dr Masood had previously claimed that the convict Imran Ali was tied to an international pornography ring.  He argued that Imran Ali had 37 foreign accounts for this purpose. He also insisted that a minister from Punjab was also an accomplice in the crime.

However, contrary to the claims, a joint investigation team found all 18 allegations made by Dr Shahid Masood false.

Penalising Dr Shahid Masood for his allegations will certainly impact the media industry. The floodgates for lawsuits will be pushed open. Reporters may become reluctant to file stories

Now a Supreme Court bench has rejected Dr Shahid Masood’s apology and request to withdraw the case. Remarks made by judges in a recent hearing suggest the host may face contempt proceedings along with a permanent ban on his show. Earlier, veteran anchor Hamid Mir had warned Dr Shahid Masood against the possibility of court proceedings against him. Other media personnel have also expressed their concerns regarding the case. Journalists fear their profession as a whole will suffer if Dr Shahid Masood is punished by the court.

Penalising Dr Shahid Masood for his allegations will certainly impact the media industry. The floodgates for lawsuits will be pushed open. Reporters may become reluctant to file stories, thereby delaying the money train channels thrive upon. However, any sensible journalist will cross-check his story from multiple sources. But, it is still possible all sources are mistaken, resulting in the unintentional publication of a false story.  Yet, it is pertinent to note, while a mistake can be made by any journalist, it is not a mistake  if repeated.

Dr Shahid Masood reiterated the allegations against Imran Ali on several occasions with remarkable confidence. He even went on to state: ‘Hang me if I am proven wrong.’ Thus he did not make an innocent mistake. On the contrary, Dr Shahid Masood failed to calculate the opportunity cost of publicising a shocking albeit false story. He chose to sacrifice the credibility attached to a journalist for the sake of popularity. Consequently, some form of penalty needs to be doled out, as setting a precedent has now become necessary.

Haunted by a race for ratings the quality of journalism in Pakistan continues to decline.  The greed for monetary gain has compromised the profession’s very integrity. And punishing one solider often sets the whole platoon straight. The media industry needs to be reminded of the highly sensitive role it plays in shaping not only society in Pakistan, but the way our nation is recognised and understood internationally. We were just beginning to scrub off stains from the Osama Bin Laden fiasco when Dawn Leaks surfaced and caused an uproar.

After many backdoor negotiations Dawn Leaks was put to rest but it must not be forgotten. Freedom of press must be preserved. If components of the military are involved in sponsoring terrorism, then a journalist has every right to bring this story to light. However, if such a story is to be published it needs to do more than quote a mere conversation behind closed doors. It cannot simply state that CM Punjab Shahbaz Sharif has accused the military’s top brass of aiding terrorists in a highly secretive meeting held at the Prime Minister’s office. Such an explosive story needs to be backed by solid evidence if our national security and foreign relations are to be put at risk.

Dawn Leaks should have been the turning point for journalism in Pakistan but very little was done to reshape the industry. It has become blatantly clear that the content churned out by print and electronic media in Pakistan needs to be regulated – not censored but remoulded. The basic principles of journalism have been long discarded. Not every story is breaking news. Asking an individual how they feel after losing a loved one is highly unethical and needs to be stopped. Barging into places with cameras and invading privacy in the name of investigative journalism should not be permitted.

While PEMRA was formed to address these very concerns posed by electronic media, former Chairman Absar Alam has proved the institution is nothing but a toothless tiger. In a press conference last year, Mr Alam stated that the institution was facing threats. Fearing for his safety and that of his staff, he requested the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice and the Army Chief to take notice of the matter. Who then shall keep our television channels in check? I suggest media houses self-regulate, as the move will benefit them.

Irresponsible journalism will cause television channels viewership. Once an anchorperson like Dr Shahid Masood loses credibility, fewer people are likely to listen to his words again. Already most television channels and newspapers tend to be divided across political lines.  This means viewers/readers can make choices between television channels/newspapers based on political preferences. And tying media houses to politics is not only a financial gamble in the long run. The partisan position is also a betrayal of the profession.

Journalism serves a higher purpose. Journalists across the globe throughout history have covered wars, crimes, natural disasters, and other multiple high risk situations in their search for the truth. They have died in the line of duty. Daphne Galizia contributed to the Panama Papers scandal and paid for it with her life. She was killed in a car bomb attack last year. With elections around the corner, this kind of journalistic integrity is the need of the hour. No one will gain from irresponsible journalism.

The writer has a master’s in media with a distinction from the London School of Economics. She tweets @mawish_m

 Published in Daily Times, March 16th 2018.