When I first joined Aaj News in June last year to head their digital properties, a colleague expressed some concern about us writing about Tehreek e Labbaik Pakistan. The concern centered around a blackout on reporting on the TLP except they could not point me to any notification, in writing or even verbal. So I went ahead to report the event, applying the good old Inverted Pyramid style of writing, adding context, some background, history, etc.
I don't know what I was expecting but I reported on TLP that day with a few feelings of dread and anxiety. I experienced it again reporting on Manzoor Pashteen, then about some dissidents, and by the time we were writing about the sit-in in Balochistan later in the year, when almost no one else in mainstream TV was, the anxiety had disappeared but it would resurface at the drop of a hat — especially when it comes to religion.
In the eight months I’ve been at Aaj News and seen remarkable growth on our site thanks to team members’ hard work, a lot has happened vis a vis the TLP. It’s impossible not to report on them. Admittedly it’s hard to keep track of their status — are they banned, a political party, a militant outfit and so forth — but you can’t pretend they don’t exist.
So you have no choice but to proceed with the aforementioned strange kind of caution, wondering if this story will be the one to get you into trouble — without even knowing what trouble means.
This makes the case for an independent media even more important. It must be allowed to report freely so the public’s right to know is met. Because the government is failing in guaranteeing the public’s constitutional right to information. Instead it’s doing everything in its power to obstruct the public’s right to know.
By disallowing media organizations from doing their jobs, the government and its supporters pave the way for groups to exploit news vacuums and amplify misinformation. Those of us striving for a democratic system in Pakistan are being sidelined by opportunistic parasites who portray independent media as rotten and unreliable when nothing could be further from the truth.
What is unreliable is the relationship between the government, media institutions and the public. These relationships have a major trust deficit which needs to be rectified and a half-baked media policy won’t resolve the issues of mistrust either.
Should the government be creating a media policy especially when its history in such matters has repeatedly shown a negative impact — i.e. hindrances in the public’s right to know. The government should then not be that involved in formulating any media policy. Neither should this rest solely on the shoulders of media owners who are driven purely by profit.
Stakeholders should also ask whether such a policy reflects the modern day realities of the world, i.e. new entrants in journalism like underrepresented communities who are not represented by traditional media or those whose needs big media does not meet.
Clearly, TLP supporters at some point or the other have not been served by the media, in part because they were not allowed. There are scores of other communities like the TLP who aren’t represented in the media because their stories won’t sell or get the clicks one needs to survive in this ecosystem.
Maybe then it’s time to listen to the many media scholars like Victor Pickard at University of Pennsylvania who say journalism is a public good, as basic a need as roads, schools, hospitals. Just like these necessities make it possible for a community to function, so should news.
A lot of senior journalists (using the term loosely here) need to stop harkening back to the days of golden journalism for no such age has existed, certainly not in Pakistan and certainly not for the marginalized who have yet to see themselves in newspapers or TV screens. These journalists are still not prepared for the current digital age and new audiences that need to be served with reliable, fact-checked information.
The reality is that journalists have not been only gatekeepers of information for almost two decades. A simple conversation with anyone under 25 will tell you where they get their information from and how they share it. This realization usually results in thinking that the answer lies in innovation whereas perhaps it lies in asking who is in charge of the news — including who is in the newsroom writing the stories and ensuring it is getting to audiences that need that information.
Democracy cannot survive without a free press. It is a government’s duty to guarantee its functionality. Let the news media decide how it gets that information out and serves all communities.
The writer heads digital properties at Aaj News. She tweets at @Ledeing Lady