It’s never good when the folks who bring you the news become the news. Two recent examples have prompted a debate about media responsibility, and how admonitions that preach that responsibility are actually attacks on the freedom of the press. Hamid Mir was shot, and no one is talking about finding out who did it. The ISI, perhaps the agency most capable of hunting down the perpetrators, is licking its wounds after a scathing attack from Geo, including a demand for the ISI chief’s resignation. The affront to a national institution being targeted and the resulting warning of dangers to national security are a familiar form of hushing up embarrassing criticism.
In this case, Geo erred. The attack on Mir could have come from many quarters. To single out anyone so decisively, when there has been no opportunity to investigate, was unprofessional. Was there reason for Hamid Mir to be concerned? Yes. Should these concerns be lightly disregarded? No.
But those smarting from the accusations have also erred. Instead of investigating and presenting the identity of the attackers to demolish the suspicion created by the non-stop cycle of breaking news on Geo, energy was invested in routing a demand through the Ministry of Defence to suspend Geo’s broadcasting license. If as a result of this Geo is suspended even temporarily, it will signal the beginning of the end for press freedom.
Granted, private businesses are not the same as sensitive national institutions. But surely, both are to obey their own rules. The ISI is not blameless in ignoring laws meant to govern it. The Supreme Court has criticised the involvement of secret agencies in the enforced disappearances of missing persons. The Asghar Khan case was thoroughly debated, and the ISI was found to have been involved in setting up the IJI to destabilise an elected government. The leaking of the Abbotabad Commission report and the inconclusive report on Saleem Shehzad’s murder are both of note. The difference is that the excesses of intelligence agencies do not result in calls for disbandment.
In contrast, when the media errs — which it does — a memo is typed up and sent to PEMRA to revoke a television license. Nothing is thought of media owners being asked to appear before authorities and explain themselves. Accountability is not a bad thing. Media owners should be asked to explain when they break the rules — as in cases of airing hate speech, or covering banned organisations, or inciting violence. But so should the ISI when accusations against it are a matter of concern. In a bizarre reversal of roles, it is the agencies lecturing the media on ethics, and the media conducting criminal investigations.
If we leave journalism and its ethics to the journalists, and criminal investigations to the police and related authorities, and both do their jobs — we should be fine. At the moment, this is not the case.