Can Pakistan’s corrupt media be checked?

With ratings driving the profits of media channels, journalists and political talk show hosts are being motivated to stir up controversy at any cost. Meanwhile, the professionals who believe in credibility, objectivity, and honesty as essential parts of ethical journalism are becoming sidelined.

This corruption within the media is spreading like a cancer, and there seems to be no antidote. If it is not checked, it could prove fatal for the media industry. We must take steps to address this problem ourselves. If not, Pakistan’s journalists could lose the credibility they have earned from years of struggle.

Earlier this month, a video recording of the off-air conversation between two prominent talk show hosts on Dunya TV was leaked. The hosts, Mubashir Luqman and Mehr Bokhari, were speaking to controversial real estate tycoon Malik Riaz in what was purported to be a confrontational interview broadcast on-air. But the leaked video showed the hosts off-air agreeing to questions, discussing questions to be planted, and talking on the phone to government officials about how to construct the debate.

The video appeared on YouTube [here and here, both in Urdu] a few hours after the show aired, and generated a huge debate both in print and online media about the hosts’ credibility. Dunya management claimed there was a conspiracy to defame the channel and ordered an internal inquiry. Bokhari, meanwhile, struggled to clarify her position and denied involvement. Luqman was fired because of the insulting remarks he made about Mian Aamir, the station’s owner, that were broadcast in the leaked video.

All 17 of the Pakistani Supreme Court’s justices took notice, too. They watched the recordings in the presence of Abdul Jabbar, chairman of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority. It was not an official proceeding, but Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry questioned Jabbar about his inaction over the interview, the leaked video, and other TV programs ridiculing the judiciary.

Even while the consensus within the Pakistani press was that the credibility of broadcast media had been brought into question, talk shows’ viewership went unaffected. This was no surprise: In the past, hosts fired from one station went to another, often with a much higher pay package.

Are these the norms of our society? While controversies, real or staged, often help the popularity of the channels and the anchors, such serious and blatant abuse damages their credibility.

Where did this media corruption start? Can it be checked? If so, how? Or is it too late?

It is wrong to think that the corruption of the media is a new phenomenon. It is something that has developed over the years, but no serious effort has ever been made to address the problem. Corrupt media and journalists in Pakistan are nothing new; the problem started soon after Independence. Corrupt practices have rarely been confronted. Too many editors and reporters have simply made excuses instead of fighting the problem. And the poor wage structure and working conditions for journalists have only made the situation worse.

I have watched over the years as press cards or press stickers on vehicles were repeatedly misused. In the 1990s, an Urdu-language newspaper advertised within its pages an invitation for applicants to open a news bureau for the paper in any location for the price of 5,000 rupees. There were no complaints from the public. Everyone remained silent over this blatant invitation to malpractice. At around the same time, an English-language newspaper called for “honorary reporters” with the guarantee of the paper’s backing for an application of a government-issued press card. One leading Sindhi paper made it mandatory for reporters and correspondents to sell “special press cards” as a ploy to raise revenue. There are hundreds of examples of this sort of abuse.

Since its inception, the Ministry of Information has had a policy of “giving favors, seeking favors.” A secret fund for the system was even rumored to have been established in the 1960s. Prior to that, the favors of journalists, editors, and owners of news outlets were being bought on a more informal basis. When first Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan visited the United States in 1950, some journalists were given business suits and others were given traditional, less expensive sherwanis. There was a dispute over why some got what they felt was the more desirable Western-style clothing, but not over whether either should have been handed out in the first place.

The All Pakistan Newspapers Society and the Council of Pakistan Newspapers Editors have never opposed the government policy of paying the expenses of journalists accompanying officials on national and international tours. Instead, some journalists have become regular members of the touring party in successive governments, enjoying all the perks and fringe benefits of close association with high officials.

That sort of corruption has slowly become accepted as regular professional practice. And it was not long before journalists’ “contacts” became “close friends” in the government, in the opposition, or in the civil service. Some of our senior colleagues have become so accustomed to walking in the corridors of power that they entered politics with high positions in political parties.

The problem is clear: The media has failed to establish any professional standards or rules of conduct for journalists, editors, or outlet owners. There are no professional organizations like bar associations or engineering or medical councils. There have been very few instances in which any media group or press organization has taken action against its members for violating ethical standards.

It is time for our profession to set some basic rules of conduct, which we will have to enforce ourselves if we want to keep our standing in the public’s eye. The time to begin is now.