Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

All governments are dangerous for the freedom of expression

Published in Nov-Dec 2014

Interview with Hameed Haroon, CEO, The Dawn Media Group and President, APNS.
Portrait by Amean J/18% grey.
Portrait by Amean J/18% grey.

AURORA: You have been President of the APNS eight times over a period of 30 years, what have been the major changes to have impacted the newspaper industry?

HAMEED HAROON: There have been changes which have impacted English language newspapers, Urdu newspapers, regional language newspapers and the periodical press differently. It is fair to say that the print media is not on the cutting edge of change; of identifying developments in society and trying to deal with them. One of the changes to have affected society over this period has been the level of recognition of human and civil rights, and this is closely linked to the democratic process. Does this translate into a positive impact on the print media? Let’s look at the paradoxical side of this. Under military regimes people used to read more carefully and were more vocal and conscious in discussing issues. We know that civil society is concerned with breaking news, but the follow up among the younger segments of society is weak. The noise level is higher, the action level is lower and the retention span is weak, which means that recognition is frequently muted. The weakness of civil society is displayed by the fact that education has not moved in proportion to the information revolution. There is less discernment of facts, and the experience curve required to consistently advocate on these issues has weakened. The fact that a lot more people have a lot more information but are less able to discern salient facts while forging an agenda is a reflection of the gap in the education system and because of this, the agenda of civil society appears to be weaker in implementation than it was previously. This can only be rectified by a uniformly applied educational process. Our society is mostly made up of the young, and we cannot lose this opportunity. The media has not kept up in assimilating and understanding these demographic and information technology changes. Although journalism in the print media is far better than it was 30 years ago in terms of the breadth of issues, in terms of depth and the kind of critical understanding required to affect and sustain reform have weakened. Also human and civil rights violations are counted in a different way than they were 30 years ago. There is no hierarchy in understanding that if the numbers have grown and the ability to fight back and criticise these violations have grown, the ability to recognise them for what they are in terms of their importance has decreased. The print media and the electronic media are both victims of this. While there has been an improvement in the quality of journalism and their ability to fight in practical terms, there almost seems to be no permanent red lines in this morality. And this is a danger for the future of the country; the inability to effectively monitor lack of governance and treat it accordingly.

A: In terms of human and civil rights, there seems to be a dichotomy within the print media. Most English language newspapers cover and even support these issues editorially, but one rarely sees the same approach from the Urdu or the regional language press.

HH: This paradox is perhaps a little misunderstood. Levels of awareness have grown in all media, but the English language press depended on an elite English language educational system. The failure to assimilate this language of change within the Urdu media and the regional press is disturbing. The regional language press is much more governed by the absence of rights and therefore they see it in terms of their own predicament. As for the Urdu press, the first problem is that no significant attempts have been made to change the Urdu school curriculum, so there is a lack of technical know-how in the language of change. The vocabulary in English required to understand change, classify and categorise it, is far greater than it is in Urdu. So it appears as if the Urdu media is weaker in understanding these issues. That is not correct; what is probably truer is that the feelings of journalists in both languages are not dissimilar, but their ability to express them has weakened when it comes to the Urdu press.

A: Although there is ongoing talk about the need to develop a code of ethics, there has been little action. What could the APNS do to facilitate this process?

HH: There are professional codes which are different for publishers, for financial decision making, for marketing and for production in the media and of course there is a different code for editors and journalists. Although the values between these codes are similar, the expression of the limits of good professional behaviour for each one is not. Defining the limits of professional behaviour within these various segments of the media, whether electronic or print, has not occurred yet. The print media has the advantage of backlog and therefore its ethical system appears to have evolved a little more carefully over the years and is a little more suitable to the present crisis in information and governance; with the electronic media the experience curve is recent and affects judgment with respect to any code of ethics. Regulation through the Press Council or other societal means with respect to the print media is more developed and there is more compliance in according recognition to values. In the case of the electronic media, what we saw in the recent Geo episode, with even the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) not only confused, but hopelessly manipulated, the evolution of a working code of ethics becomes exceedingly difficult to implement. Particularly with respect to the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA) and PEMRA, there have been gross examples of violations of freedom of expression, even of constitutional articles; yet a sense of responsibility is missing in these bodies with respect to preserving and safeguarding those values and ethics.

A: You referred to a code of ethics with respect to marketing. Could you elaborate on this?

HH: The development of advertising creativity, and the communication of advertising messages that are honest and correspond to the kinds of ethical constraints that advertising must operate under in the rest of the world, seems to be absent here. After the ban on overseas and foreign agencies in the 1960s, the advertising industry was dominated by local practitioners who had dedicated careers and were pioneers in many aspects of the profession. However, they did not leave behind a sustainable structure of delivery in terms of advertising and marketing services to their clients and they were unable to insulate the media from unethical responses by clients. Over the years, the advertising profession has demonstrated a lack of development with respect to ethical values. Particularly important is the way that the big advertising practitioners abandoned the print media and have allowed it to suffer under the kind of corporate and governmental restraints they did not allow before. In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, advertising practitioners were counted among some of the strongest advocates of press freedom; one cannot say the same thing today.

A: In terms of advertising, ethical standards are applied by individual newspapers, but there seems to be no APNS policy on this.

HH: The notion of ethics in media is closely co-related to freedom of expression. It imposes restraints, it cannot impose obstacles. For example, a few weeks ago, a reader wrote to the editor of DAWN to complain about the fact that publishing real estate advertising from the Gulf in Pakistani newspapers is encouraging a drain of financial assets. I think we need to live in this global village and understand what information is. If laws are subsequently violated in the making of investments because people do not report them to the government, that is not our business. Closing ourselves off from the rest of the world is something Ayub Khan taught us to do in the 1960s, and it had a very bad result on how we perceived world opinion in the Bangladesh crisis and caused us to do things which were completely at variance with the morality of the rest of the world. When we speak of ethical advertising, we must remember that ethics are closely related to a larger system of freedom of expression and information and we should learn to deal with both.

A: Recently DAWN carried a story about a scam involving the DHA that might eventually lead to the destruction of 490 acres of mangroves. Hypothetically, would DAWN accept any advertising from the DHA if and when they decided to commercialise this land?

HH: DAWN believes that the law with respect to mangroves and our international agreements are being violated. However, that does not give the newspaper the authority to seal the information process. If tender advertising is done, it must be published because to deny readers this knowledge would be to deny them an understanding of what they need to prevent. Media should be free to criticise and if people have something to say in defence of cutting down mangroves, they have a right to express their voice in the media. Your example represents the kind of problem the media faces today. The problem with the information revolution is that it does not give us the ability to address these issues. The stoppage of Jang, The News and Geo in the cantonment areas is another example of a basic human rights violated by landholders. By far the biggest challenge is a mindset that motivates people within the larger media to destroy press freedoms which had been hard won over long battles. The ease with which elements in the media jumped in the campaign against the Jang Group showed that they were prepared to sacrifice their own press freedoms, in the long run in order to gain that much more revenue; subsequent developments with respect to the closure of channels outside the Jang Group have shown that these elements have created a ground of acceptability for this intervention. The biggest challenge is not only to have professional codes that are uniform, but to create a sense of values and ethics about press freedoms that are also uniform among this huge number of new entrants in an enlarged media space.

A: How is the APNS responding to the digital challenge?

HH: The challenges arising from the evolution of the digital age are terribly important, and we have only skimmed their surface. Most regulation and coordination mechanisms in the print media are governed by digital technology in terms of the production of newspapers. In this respect the larger groups have reasonably responded but the smaller groups and the regional press have not been able to come to grips with these challenges in the same way. Giving access to smaller publishers within the APNS to digital understanding is very important. For example, The International Centre of Journalists is working with the Institute of Business Administration to train Pakistani journalists. In fact, they only want to liaise with the small firms within the APNS in order to evolve digital solutions and digital revenue, as well to strengthen them. This will enhance the viability of media, because the main by-product of the digital revolution is lower costs with respect to communication.

A: Can digital help the print media enhance their revenues?

HH: Ensuring substantial revenues is a larger and more important task than simply enhancing revenues through digital. Revenue enhancement is a complex area. It is an internationally accepted principle that the cost of print media is not borne by the sales price, but by advertising, and the problem is the huge decline in the advertising sector. A respected professional told me he estimates that at least two thirds of the national ad-spend is governed by corruption within corporations and this trend has had a very bad effect on the prospects of both the print and electronic media. Similarly, the quality of the product should not be ignored. We have to enhance our quality control standards to be able to communicate effectively to the digital universe around us.

A: When you say two thirds of the ad spend is governed by corruption, do you mean the government or the private sector?

HH: The corruption is not by the media buying houses or the agencies; that corruption, as defined by the person who spoke to me, is in terms of the corporations themselves.

A: Given declining revenues from advertising, which in fact sustain the print media, does the APNS have any strategies to counter this?

HH: I don’t believe advertising sustains the print media; it is only the primary financial factor in sustaining it. What sustains the print media is an emphasis on informational clarity, independence and good communication with readers; after which advertising comes in as a sustainability factor. If the first is not in place, and we see plenty of signs that it is not – and as long as that wooliness is not cleared and autonomy, independence and fairness in reporting is also made a part of this, we cannot hope to look for financial sustainability. We need to be sustainable on the basis of our content and then add financial sustainability on the basis of advertising to it.

A: Is it just the lack of digital capabilities that seem to be holding back the regional press from playing a more important role?

HH: Regional newspapers are the nursery of the print media. Are they an adequate nursery? Not today, and if you see the way they have been suppressed by the various governments on whom they depend on for advertising revenue, you can see why their growth has been retarded. Regional newspapers must become an integral part of the press. If you look at the effectiveness of digital media, it is to communicate not only across the national spectrum but also to segmented audiences, and this is something the regional press does particularly well.

A: The APNS and PBA are looking after the business side of the print and electronic media respectively. Have these bodies considered coming together on a single platform?

HH: PBA looks after the business side while the APNS, although it also looks at facilitating business, has a primary role to look at the ethics and ethos of newspapers. If you look at our record on press freedoms, it stands better than any other body. But yes, there is tremendous scope for working together. Facilitating clearance, which prevents financial blackmail and irregularities, with respect to advertising would be a major area. But it is very difficult to do this in the absence of a developed advertising sector and the advertising sector has receded in the last 10 years in terms of human resource development. We need a stronger advertising sector and more cooperation between media bodies in order to ensure that we deal ethically with client funds, advertising communication and the business of media.

A: The APNS has been very successful in negotiating with successive governments when the need has arisen, yet there still remains a fair degree of dependence on government ads, particularly in terms of the smaller newspapers and the regional press.

HH: Dependence is a fact of life. Firstly, a government’s intentions are usually better than as perceived, but we must also understand that all governments are dangerous for the freedom of expression. Secondly, a successful negotiating strategy should make it clear that ethics and press freedoms are non-negotiable. When President Musharraf tried to impose martial law a second time and bring the press to heel, we informed his information officials that we would not brook any physical attacks on any newspaper establishment, otherwise we would be forced to go on a national strike. This is not about negotiating with governments, it is about telling them where the out-of-bound domains are. When the attacks against the Jang Group started and the cantonment boards began to stop the distribution of newspapers and disconnect Geo from the areas under their control, we made it clear that this was a violation of law, but the weakness in this stand was not that the government did not accept this, the weakness was that the PBA did not accept this. And this kind of weakness has to be dealt with, not by confrontation, but by negotiating within the press itself to create a consensus. This is part of internal bilateral dialogue and it is the only way we can fortify ourselves with respect to our rights. But rights have obligations and obligations means a desire to tell the truth, to be fair and not overstep the bounds. Persuading media of the necessity of that dictum is terribly important. You must make people understand their obligations as a medium, if you are to insist on your rights of press freedom.

Hameed Haroon was in conversation with Zohra Yusuf, Executive Creative Director, Spectrum Y&R and Chairperson, HRCP.
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