Principled broadcasting in Pakistan, a work in progress

Pakistan’s media, particularly broadcast, are often praised and condemned, sometimes in the same sentence. The number of television broadcasters exploded under the Musharraf government, growing to around 90 private cable and satellite channels. And while the growth has been swift and competitive, very often the end product leaves a lot to be desired–as many in the industry admit.

Mazhar Abbas wrote passionately in June about the need to clean up the entire industry– broadcast and print–in a CPJ blog, “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.

It turns out Abbas’s brother Azhar, managing director of Geo News, has been leading the charge to address those problems. Geo TV has been deeply involved in news and controversy since it was launched in 2002–search for “Geo TV” and you get more than 10 pages of results.

About two weeks ago he sent a draft copy of Geo Asool, what the broadcaster calls its “social contract with our viewers” to a wide email list, asking for comments and input. (I was one of the recipients.) “Asool” translates as “principles.” It is still a work in progress. Even though it’s available online, “We are still getting feedback and meeting different stake holders. We are trying to incorporate the feedback received,” Abbas told me in an email message. He said Geo is working toward an August 14 finished product–Geo’s 10th anniversary–but he is not sure he will make the deadline.

The draft has four sections:

  • GEO’s manifesto of values, goals, and declared biases
  • Best practice guidelines on how that will translate into day-to-day operations
  • An ethical journalism handbook for internal use
  • A plan for monitoring and implementing those ideals

The sections were drawn up by a committee of reporters, hosts, and members of Geo’s editorial and management team. They also looked at seven different codes of conduct from international media and regulatory bodies. “We believe that the draft documents contain many blind spots, and some parts may even be too idealistic in our context,” Abbas says.

A closing note: To get a good sense of Pakistan’s media industry, Sherry Ricchiardi just finished a valuable report, “Challenges for Independent News Media in Pakistan,” for the Center for International Media Assistance. She relied on a lot of CPJ’s research and reporting, something it was a pleasure to help with.