A parable, which a legal philosopher Zechariah Chafee Jr. penned in his article Freedom of Speech in War Time in 1919, comprehensively illustrates the importance of ethics in professional realms. The parable goes around a man who hits a person in the nose while swinging his arms in the air and gets attested for doing so. Upon bringing him on trial, many raised the question of the alleged man’s rights as a free man in a free country. In response to his proponents, the judge exclaims, “ Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.”

In short, the parable gives out the message that some level of regulation in the form of code of ethics is essential to maintain peace so that an action such as swinging an arm does not the affect wellbeing of a person in close proximity. However, instances of ethics violations are not a sporadic occurrence in professional realms, which, unfortunately, also includes journalism. These violations range from accusations, disparagement, and sneers, etc.

In the ugliness of petty arguments, the true purpose of journalism usually gets blurred, which is to report on the lives of people and provide descriptions of events. Although journalism is often used as an umbrella term, there are categories that further break it into subdivisions mainly centred upon the expertise or beat of a journalist. For example, a crime and conflict journalist reports on war, and similarly, a journalist with a focus on pop culture reports on entertainment. What binds all these strains is a code of ethics that every journalist pledges to at the outset of their career. The code of ethics is decided based on the general consensus of various national and international bodies. For instance, The Center for Internal Media Ethics (CIME) is one of the global communities for professional media and digital media, which ensures the sustenance and improvement of ethical standards in the field of journalism.

The national regulatory institutions are only responsible for national media entities. In Pakistan, bodies that regulate news and media include Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS), Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), and the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE), which work prolifically to make sure the code of ethics do not get violated.

It is believed that the news and media sector in Pakistan gained significant momentum in the realm of General Pervez Musharraf. In the 00s, the private media entities tripled. More and more people became attracted to the field of journalism because of the handsome salaries offered at most of the privately run channels. However, the consequence that came along with the boom is far more harmful. The race to get good ratings came at the expense of sensationalism, which not only impacted the journalists, but also the general public.

There are always disagreements between the government and the journalists about these regulations with the latter calling it suppression of media. On papers, journalists are allowed a great deal of freedom; however, regimes over the decades have had to formulate alternative ways to tame harmful delirium that comes with that freedom. A lot of regulations in place could be traced back to 1948. After the promulgation of Public Safety Ordinance (PSO) in 1948, dozens of newspapers closed down. The PSO allowed the dictator Ayub Khan to ban news agencies and arrest dissenting journalists. Similarly, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto went against his democratic values and banned newspapers and arrested journalists.

With General Zia ul Haq came more draconian regulations that restricted media. He introduced Revised Press and Publication Ordinance (RPPO), which included amendments to PPO. These laws were used to persecute publishers for perpetuating narratives that did not align with his manifesto. 

The 90s were a revolutionary period for the press as leaders in power–Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif—exploited the sector to propagate their own agenda through government advertisements. 

The Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf’s government has been under constant criticism of curbing media’s freedom as well. However, how the Prime Minister Imran Khan recently dealt with journalists who asked irrelevant questions in an attempt to grill him in a briefing regarding COVID-19 smartly outplayed the odds against his government.

In summary, the leniency over media varied with each government with some having no tolerance for dissent, while some welcomed criticism.

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The author belongs to Quetta, Balochistan. He is the winner of 'English Article' category of the Writing Contest held by VOB from June-July, 2019.

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