Pakistan – an ethical vacuum for the media

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Let us start with a disclaimer. Not all those that work in journalism and the media generally in Pakistan are feckless wastrels with their ethics pigeonholes set to empty. Indeed I sense that the majority are ordinary decent men and women getting on with doing a job as best they can in what may charitably be described as ‘challenging’ circumstances in these days of downsizing and job insecurity.

But there are exceptions, and in the last week there were two instances in which I was genuinely appalled, and after a quarter-century in Pakistan I do not appall easily. One was an editorial lapse that was repeated the day after it was first picked up, and the second a cruel and thoughtless lapse of judgment live on air.

The son of a senior leader of the Pakistan People’s Party was killed in a car crash. This is an intensely personal tragedy that ought to have been disclosed to him in privacy, but instead was communicated to him by a reporter in the course of a press conference to the horror of the bereaved father and those around him who were also unaware of the boys’ death.

Thus far we have scant public insight into what was in the mind of the reporter, whether he was aware that what he was doing was outside the ethical boundaries, outside the boundaries as far as human compassion and sensitivity were concerned. If he was aware of the likely impact of his disclosure in public then what was his motivation?

To cause pain to a political figure? The reporter has since offered the distinctly unconvincing explanation that he was not seeking ‘ratings’ and that he did what he did out of ‘concern’. If true then he has a very skewed perception of precisely what ‘concern’ might mean in this context.

It is blackly ironic that the politician involved had previously been one of the most popular information ministers in any government for many years.

The second incident played out online, in cold hard print and on social media, primarily Facebook and Twitter. An English language newspaper printed the full name of a young woman who had allegedly been gang raped by four men, three of them policemen. She had been abducted from close to the hostel where she lived. The newspaper is one of the assets of the largest media group in the country and has been regarded as at the forefront of liberal journalism for many years. The story had the byline of a reporter who has in the past allegedly named rape victims and published their addresses.

Once the lapse had been exposed social media swung into action with some of the elder states-persons of the journalist community quick to take up the cudgels. It transpired that the story had been published in the Islamabad edition of the paper and not the Karachi edition, and once a senior editor had it pointed out to him he was quick to amend the online edition and that to his credit for moving fast – but the print edition was still in circulation and the woman’s name was repeated 24 hours later.

Let there be no misunderstanding. The newspaper – and by extension its owners – have committed a crime by virtue of the Criminal Law (Amendment) (Offences relating to rape) Act 2016 with a sentence of up to three years imprisonment if convicted. It is impossible to believe that the owner-operators of the newspaper were unaware of this considering that they gave the matter coverage at the time the 2016 Act was amended as did other English-language newspapers. It is equally impossible to believe that the reporter who wrote the story was also unaware.

The publication of the woman’s name was a blatant flouting of the law of the land and so far as I am aware there is no move to prosecute the newspaper, the journalist or the owners of the group that the newspaper is a subsidiary of. They are powerful and influential and presumably able to bend political ears when the wind blows against them.

As a senior and respected international reporter of Pakistan origin said on Facebook ‘It’s a failure at all levels. From the reporter to the desk to the editor’ – and she is right, it is. Many others lamented the death of professionalism in the media generally, the rise and rise of inexperienced reporters and commentators in a highly competitive cutthroat market and the fact that some desks and out-stations are bare-bones operations run on a shoe string and poorly resourced. Editorial oversight is sometimes not as rigorous as it should be and lapses such as that detailed above are probably inevitable.

All of the above or variations thereof are true to a greater or lesser degree. Morale is low in the media community with many workforces not being paid for months. The Supreme Court has intervened on behalf of one such group and they have been paid in part. Despite its ubiquity and seeming proliferation there is a rolling crisis across all media platforms, print and electronic, in part triggered by the government slashing the amount it spends on advertising that was the flawed mainstay of some business models.

There is a churn in process that is altering the face of how news and entertainment are delivered to us, and the ethical vacuum of the header of this piece can in large part be attributed to this. Ethics are an early casualty, and a largely defenceless one. A prosecution for breaking the law? About as likely as a one-armed window cleaner winning a knitting competition.