May 052008

Media pundits convinced of the need for social justice in a democratic society strongly assert that “the mass media and individual journalists need to become the advocates for the politically homeless.” It is a powerful role that is assigned to the media by many prominent social and political critics. In fact, this concept, in no uncertain terms, argues that the media’s role in a democracy is essentially political. An eminent media ethicist suggests, “justice for the powerless stands at the centrepiece of a socially responsible press. Or, in other terms, the litmus test of whether or not the news profession fulfils its mission over the long term is the advocacy for those outside the socioeconomic establishment.”
“… One of the ironies of democratic politics is,” writes a social scientist, “that in order to accomplish something, you first have to get elected. But accomplishing something, not getting elected, is the major work of politics.” Is the Pakistani media socially responsible? Is it politically active? Is media power real in Pakistan? 
On November 3, 2007, General (retd) Musharraf, fearful of the growing political power and activity of the electronic media, unconstitutionally banned several television broadcasts to put an end to this process and restrain its influence on voters’ attitudes for the national elections. Another objective was to undermine the process of democratization and use the media to support Musharraf’s dictatorial political establishment. Ironically, the censorship of the media and its absence from the political scene did not help Musharraf’s party, the PML(Q), to win the elections.
Several experts believe that the media is simply not powerful enough to be an agent of social and political change. This view suggests that the power of the media is restricted to reinforcing the prevailing social and political attitudes. So the vital question is: What does Musharraf’s monumental defeat at the hands of Pakistani voters tell us about the power of the media? Is it that, irrespective of the media’s role, the public’s consciousness of political and social issues determines which direction the country will go? This view is shared by political libertarians, who believe that people are competent to understand what’s “good and rational and able to judge good ideas from bad.” They also say that “good and truthful arguments will win out over lies and deceit” because people’s rationality plays a paramount role in political decision-making. 
Although, as a student of media and politics, I am not completely convinced of this argument, it seems quite evident that in the February 18 elections the people did decide the future political management of the country on the basis of rationality as well as on the sentiments of democratisation built on the harsh political experience and ravages of a dictatorship that has lasted for nearly nine years. Did the media play any role in this psychological and metamorphic transformation of the public’s attitudes and the expression of their will? If it did not, then why was Musharraf’s political establishment fearful of its emerging political power? If it did, then why was the media ineffective in PML(Q)’s election campaigning?
The fact is that human behaviour is so mysteriously unpredictable. The elections reflected a drastic change of public temperament. It proved that the media did not have the imagined power. However, it also seems quite obvious that the media did have an impact and helped create a new national consciousness quite opposed to the one intended by the political establishment. 
The general elections are a testament to the fact that common citizens are aware of the direct and indirect results of the different national institutions on their level of existence – and their vote resulted in a revolutionary mandate rejecting the status quo and demanding an absolute change in political structure of the country. This would not have happened without the media’s role in politicising and mobilizing the public to active participation in the democratisation process.
Pakistan, at its present stage of existence, is neither a profoundly accomplished nation (consider the ramifications of the last eight years of dictatorship and growing socio-economic gap between haves and have-nots – 8 percent holding 94 percent wealth of the nation) nor a completely failed state (consider the projection of national political consciousness in general elections). 
We have PML(N) leadership holding onto the “Politics of Pure-ism Paradigm” (a concept developed by this writer) and committed to fulfilling election campaign promises (yet Musharraf is still in presidency without any visible signs of leaving soon). The lawyers movement, headed by the able and principled leadership of Aitizaz Ahsan, is pushing for restoration and dignity of judiciary (however, formulas such as Minus 1 are being promoted). 
The PPP, in its approach of strategic political realism and national reconciliation cover, unfortunately remains uncommitted and unclear on several important national issues (hopefully in the near future the PPP will be obliged under public pressure to respect its mandate wholly and completely). It remains an ethical and political responsibility of the media to keep the pre-election national issues alive and make the public (and politicians) aware of its power to hold the new leadership accountable.
Extreme caution will have to be taken to make sure that the electronic media is not overly dominated by sheer commercialisation by the profit-making corporate sector. Take, for instance, a recent TV programme was interrupted several times by commercials. At one point, a mobile phone commercial was repeated six consecutive times. It is quite obvious that if the corporate world controls the media, it will have tremendous influence on media’s content and management. Indeed, a concentrated profit-making focus in media is known to have worked against the general public interests. This will have to be avoided at all costs. 
Is media power real? The universal judgment is inconclusive on this matter. Should the media be all-powerful? The civil society in Pakistan needs to debate this issue rationally and logically. The media must not take up the role of socio-political indoctrination as has happened in the technologically-advanced US and western Europe. In the present political environment in Pakistan that is exploding with the demands of democratisation of all national institutions, the media will have to take the role of a Fourth Estate in the affairs of the country. The Fourth Estate stipulates: “Media as an independent social institution that ensures that other (state) institutions serve the public.”

Source: The Nation, 5/5/2008

 Posted by at 6:43 am

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