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Rights at risk

Interview: Aasim SaleemMay 2, 2014

In a country full of contradictions, if media does not regulate itself soon, there are chances that the state could come up with arbitrary rules and regulations, says senior Pakistani journalist Owais Tohid.

Symbolic Picture Shows newspapers in chains
Image: Fotolia/Vladimir Voronin

Amnesty International has said that journalists in Pakistan live under constant threat of killings, harassment and other violence. According to the report, released on April 30, 2014, members of the media face this violence at the hands of the intelligence services, political parties and armed groups like the Taliban.

Meanwhile, the recent attacks on two senior journalists, Raza Rumi and more recently, Hamid Mir, have rekindled the on-going debate in Pakistan about accountability and media ethics. It also coincides with the launch of the report by the media commission, appointed by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. This report was published by the local office of Germany's Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

DW spoke with Owais Tohid, a senior journalist in Pakistan and a panelist for the launch event of "The Report and Recommendations of The Media Commission," which was released on April 29, 2014.

DW: What exactly does the media commission report talk about?

Owais Tohid: The media commission's report, compiled by retired Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid together with the chairman of the commission and former Senator Javed Jabbar, talks about the dysfunctional regulatory body, the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) and the restructuring of the information ministry. It also contains suggestions about how to regulate electronic media.

Why now, at this particular point in time? Is it because, in the last year or so, Pakistani media has been highly critical of the ISI with respect to the disappearances of Baloch separatists and attacks on journalists?

I don't think it has anything to do with any pressure from the intelligence agencies. This debate has been going on for years in Pakistan. People have been comparing electronic media to a wild horse; some were even portrayed as wild beasts or animals.

The problem is, there is no uniformity or unity amongst the media houses and journalists' bodies and so, in the eyes of the public, electronic media looks a bit chaotic. It is, to some extent, losing its credibility. The recent attacks have rekindled this debate and it coincides with the media commission's report.

Owais Tohid
Owais Tohid says regulation is much neededImage: DW

What is the current standard of media ethics in Pakistan?

The debate started after Hamid Mir, a senior Pakistani journalist, was attacked on April 19, 2014, by unidentified gunmen in the southern city of Karachi. He is now recovering in a local hospital and his condition is said to be stable. After the attack, Mir's brother, accused the country's powerful spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for the attack, in a television program. A few other channels started blaming this particular channel, labelling it a traitor, which to me is not justified. It's not media's job to call somebody a traitor or a patriot. Certain sections of the media behaved like sharks in a feeding frenzy, devouring each other. They dug their own graves by branding somebody a traitor or a patriot. No one gave them the right to declare that.

The government's regulatory authority, such as PEMRA and other journalist bodies, have failed to resolve or intervene in this issue. So, the time has come for journalist bodies, editors and media managers to do some soul searching. But regulation doesn't mean policing.

What are your recommendations for the regulation of media in Pakistan?

In my opinion, they should form a body of editors which can act as a buffer between the state institutions and the media houses, to implement a code of ethics and guidelines. Otherwise, it is not going to be a good scenario, especially in a country which is going through a full blown conflict and is, therefore, called a hostile zone.

Currently there is a huge problem of security for journalists, and most media personnel are not insured. They should be insured from head to toe because it is a conflict zone. They should be handed over the guidelines before they go out to cover any violent incidents. So adopting a set of guidelines is the need of the hour and in the interest of both the state and the media houses.

Has the state failed to ensure the safety of journalists in the country?

As a journalist, hazard comes with the job. But yes, at the same time, I believe that fingers will be pointed towards the state organizations and the law enforcement agencies because it is their responsibility to provide security. On the other hand, the responsibility also lies with media organizations to make the environment better by giving full support to journalists.

There has been a debate about reporting on "matters of national interest." As a journalist, how do you draw the line between maintaining your professional standards and at the same time, not annoying the state?

National interest is supreme, but it leaves behind blurry lines and that is exactly where the media's role comes in. The meaning of national interest is highly debatable; it is like walking a tight rope. A journalist's job is that of a watchdog and to give a voice to the people.

What is it like working as a journalist in Pakistan?

Well, there are a lot of contradictions, for sure. The constitution of Pakistan guarantees the freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but at the same time, the regime's actions curb these fundamental rights and allow security forces to detain somebody for a certain amount of time and no one can challenge that in the courts.

Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan ensures freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but, it is subject to any reasonable restrictions, enforced by law, in the interest of the glory of Islam, defense, national interest, security, obscenity and vulgarity.

It is open ended and so broad based, but not a single editor or a media manager is asked to debate on it. We have been trying to have this article amended.

Besides, there are over fifty laws concerning the press it is like living under a sword. That is why I say we must get our act together and come up with a set of guidelines before a supra, state body does that. That will not be liked by many.

Owais Tohid is a leading Pakistani journalist. He has headed three Pakistani news channels and has also been associated with AFP, BBC, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also written for the Wall Street Journal, TIME Magazine and The Guardian.

Interview was conducted by Aasim Saleem.