A primetime talk-show on a Pakistani private news channel was recently used by a leader of former president General Musharraf's party as a conduit to give death threats to a rival panelist. As millions of viewers watched the live show with absolute incredulity, the host did not discourage or interrupt the use of violent and abusive language. The producer did not intervene to rescue the audience from the agonizing episode either. Hence, three out of four panelists, all political leaders, voluntarily left the show informing the journalist that his show had turned "too abusive" and "extremely unprofessional" for them to continue to participate as guests. Even worse, the host defended the abusive panelist whose remarks he described as "valid."
The channel never apologized for embarrassing its audience by providing a platform to people who justified killing dissenting leaders. Such shows increase ratings and broaden channels' advertising revenue pool.
Another morning show went a step further in violating journalistic ethics and professional standards. One morning in January, Maya Khan, the host of a sensational morning show, raided public parks in an implicit move to moral police the citizens. Her viewers were totally perturbed by how she intruded into people's privacy which she justified by saying that she wanted to cleanse the society of "immoral" and "vulgar" practices. The viewers were astounded with the television celebrity's disclosure of alarming increase in 'immoral' activities among the Pakistani middle class. Ms. Khan's views do not conflict with the conservative ideas of the local clergy in the Muslim majority nation where dating couples are looked down upon and the practice itself is seen as totally un-Islamic.
Citizens for Free and Responsible Media (CFRM), an Internet-based group of Pakistani professionals who regularly monitor and discuss contents of the national media, reacted indignantly to both the shows.
"CFRM's goal is not to get channels banned or to get TV hosts or journalists fired, but to encourage channels to evolve their own set of guidelines and code of ethics in conjunction with senior producers, journalists and concerned citizens, to ensure that privacy and human dignity are not violated. We urge them to make these guidelines public," said the group in an online message.
CFRM protested against lack of professionalism and also the absence of accountability in Pakistan's sprawling news industry. Concerned citizens signed petitions, wrote letters to editors and also rang up the owners of media houses to record their displeasure over shows they considered against public interest and standards of professional journalism. This was a unique struggle of the Pakistani civil society against the media which refuses to regulate itself on professional lines.
As a result of aggressive and consistent campaign of the civil society, the channel abandoned the Maya Khan Show and also fired the host.
The saga did not end there.
In the wake of enormous public criticism to her intrusive show, Ms. Khan subsequently revealed that what she had shown as true cases was actually scripted and featured paid actors. She had lied to her viewers. In fact, there were no immoral activities going on in any public park as the show had shown. The intention of the whole show was apparently to enforce a strict Islamic lifestyle on public and discourage socialization between boys and girls at public places.
The news media in Pakistan, particularly the broadest media, performs two jobs: It provides news and oftentimes itself becomes the subject of news. In recent times, it has come under prolonged public discussions whether it is the friend or a foe of the people.
"The media [in Pakistan] is currently in an awkward growth stage, and acting out like a rebellious teenager that has no good role models. One day, however, it will turn out to be a mature, poised adult," says Huma Yusuf, an award-winning columnist for the respected Dawn newspaper.
Yusuf, who formerly served as a Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C., says the industry is so new that there are not enough civil society organizations in Pakistan to monitor and evaluate the media.
"There has been an explosion of journalism programs at university level, meaning that more qualified workers will be entering the industry. In the long term, that's what will make the difference," she says.
Since the liberalization of the media in 2002, the number of channels has risen from one to100, including around 30 channels which broadcast news 24/7. The opening up of the media introduced competitive salary packages for journalists and also brought down the average age of journalists from 47 to 23 years. In addition, the number of journalists grew from 2000 in 2002 to 17,000 in 2012.
All has changed on the media landscape except for the quality of journalism.
"I write on media, I talk about media and I teach media but, strangely, I don't watch media," admits Syed Irfan Ashraf, a distinguished media critic who teaches journalism at the University of Peshawar. "The reason is obvious that I am hardly finding any improvement. Instead, things are getting worse since the state announced the liberalization policy."
Media critics in Pakistan attribute lack of professional training to increasing complaints against an immature media. Only some channels organize orientation sessions for their new staffers, but these events focus more on organizational policies instead of issues related to media ethics.
A situation marked with professional immaturity and official ambitions to clamp down the free media is immediately manipulated by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) a government body responsible for issuing licenses to channels, with harsh restrictions.
Adnan Rehmat, Executive Director of the Intermedia, a media watchdog, says lack of distinct emphasis on professionalism like ethics, accuracy, balance and context worries him because it is contributing to curtailing access to information and freedom of expression.
PEMRA regulations, nonetheless, are not an option for Rehmat to endorse.
"The government shouldn't have a role in governing the media sector," he says, "Like the medical and legal professions, the media in Pakistan also needs to become a formal profession with a common code of ethics and a self-responsibility to set minimum professional standards and move against its practitioners who err or breach the code."
Rehmat, who has been involved in various media development initiatives since 2003, feels there is an urgent need to train Pakistan's media. Otherwise, forces hostile to liberal values are likely to derail the fledgling democratic process.
"Disturbingly, the media, in the past two years, has emerged as an opponent of the democratically elected parties in its confrontation with the traditionally hostile military establishment. By becoming party to in the battle between traditionally powerful military and emaciated political forces, the media is itself emerging as a threat to democracy."
"Post-election, the media has slowly emerged as an aggressive watchdog on the performance of the democratic dispensation. It has grown from monitor to critic to a discernibly anti-incumbent advocate and has been charging the coalition government with corruption despite the fact that in the court of law there hasn't been conviction of any government functionary in any significant case," he says.
Despite all criticism, the future of a democratic Pakistan largely hinges on the media. While in some countries free press has emerged from a democratic system, in Pakistan, on the contrary, democracy emerged in 2008 out of a free media.
As national and international organizations that focus on professional training of journalists and media ethics expand their activities, a culture of free and responsible media will gradually flourish.
The views expressed in his article are personal and do not reflect the policy of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) where the writer is currently a Regan-Fascell Democracy Fellow