Scan of main stream Pakistani electronic and print media over the last two weeks makes you believe that the biggest issue faced by the nation is to find out the truth about film actress Meera's marriage to an unknown businessman - did she! or didn't she. And I am talking about the main stream media not the tabloids - though, now-a-days I fail to find a difference between the two in Pakistan.
Well! where is the bad taste in reporting about Meera! One could argue. This is a nation that is suffering from acute shortage (created artificially by hoarders) of staple diet wheat and sugar, and the acute shortage of electricity (in a country where summer temperatures go above 45C), and abundance of Taliban, corrupt governance, corrupt law and order infrastructure and corrupt politicians who are eating away the country like there is no tomorrow. This nation for sure has a right for some light humour! Doesn't she!
Bad taste that I talk about is running through the veins of our current media reporting in all forms and nature. I object to the way our journalists have begun to behave in the way they report (or don't).
For example, I do not find appropriate the way anchors on most watched television channels have been making off the cuff remarks about Meera's character while reporting the story. These would constitute defamation in any other civilised society. News presenters on some channels have been using inappropriate language and innuendo while offering unsolicited personal opinions ridiculing the actress.
Comments like "Bakray ki maan kab tak khair manaye gi" litterally meaning 'How long can the lamb escape slaughter' or "Urdu tak tau baat saheeh thi lekin Angraizi mein train pathri se uttar gayi" meaning 'Matters were all right in Urdu, but English derailed the train', commenting on her English language skills. Meera has, for the last few weeks, facing trial by media. I am not interested in whether she is married or not, but I am interested in treating a woman with common decency that should be a virtue of a Muslim society.
Bad taste in reporting on television is beaten only by even worse taste and tact in anchoring talk shows. Our current political leadership might have strengths in many other areas but being tactful while dealing with media is not one of them. A number of the male politicians are known to use filthy language in their personal conversations but using the same on prime time talk shows should be a criminal offence. Talk show hosts who encourage such behaviour and allow this to go an air are equally irresponsible in their conduct. Recent example of a conversation where a senior female politician from the ruling party accused a female parliamentarian from opposition of bed hopping to promote her political career and of using participation in talk shows as a means for increasing her going rate as a call girl was absolutely abhorring. Only person protesting and encouraging the talk show host to put a stop to this was Dr. Sheeren Mazari, editor of a prominent national daily, The Nation.
I hope that as the Chief Editor Dr. Mazari could lead on putting a stop to bad taste in print media, including her own paper. Bad taste or rather absolute lack of taste in print media is evident from publishing of distasteful and detestable photographs depicting violence is now becoming a norm. Only this week while reporting the story of a rickshaw driver who gave up his fight against poverty and committed suicide after killing his wife and baby daughter the paper carried graphic images of the scene of crime showing dead bodies of the man, woman and child lying where they died.
Showing images of physical violence including dead bodies of victims of violent crimes still at the scene is abhorrent. Whether these are images of robbers being burnt alive by Karachi mob watching with glee, or bodies lying in street of policeman killed during attack on Sri Lankan cricketers, they do not serve the purpose of reporting news.
I believe that there is need in Pakistan to introduce a code of conduct aiming at self regulation in key areas of illegal content, such as obscenity, defamation and copyright infringement, and access to content that may be harmful to children.
There is a now a need for independent bodies like the UK Press Complaints commission for maintaining an Editorial Code of Practice and investigating complaints into reported breaches of the Code.
The code should include clauses on accuracy of content, the opportunity for reply, respect for privacy, harassment, intrusion into shock or grief, the interests of children, the reporting of crime, the protection of victims of sexual assault, discrimination, the protection of confidential sources, etc.
Media in Pakistan is going through growing pains. Having played a vital role in the fall of military dictatorship and restoration of independent judiciary it is still trying to come to grips with the new found power it holds. With great power comes great responsibility. I do not believe that legislation or government control should be used to ensure that the media behaves responsibly. Only self regulation is the answer.