How Aamir Liaquat's latest tryst with controversy has stirred the debate for ethics in journalism.
Despite the fact that more and more people are accessing the news on their cell phones, TV remains a powerful medium, especially as a shaper of public opinion in Pakistan.
The sound and fury directed at the audience by many of the ‘my way or the highway’ type of talk show hosts as well as their equally (if not more) polarised and full of themselves guests, make for hypertensive viewing. And somewhere along that path, many red lines are crossed, and the TV screen assumes the role of a courtroom where arbitrary sentences are passed on one-sided opinions. And when unsubstantiated opinions are the bedrock of allegations, the path becomes dangerous. The recent ban by PEMRA on Bol TV’s anchor, Aamir Liaquat Hussain because of his show, Aisa Naheen Chaley Ga, is a case in point.
What started with the issue of the missing bloggers and the demands by civil society activists that they be recovered, rapidly degenerated into the hurling of accusations of blasphemy and treason – two words that completely pulverise any rational thought so that the accused are neither given a right of reply or any room for forgiveness.
Recent history saw Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab, assassinated and his killer glorified, entire residential colonies set alight and even humans being thrown into a fire based – all based on allegations of blasphemy. Even due process is not a safety valve as we saw in the case of lawyer Rashid Rehman, killed because he accepted to take on the case of university professor Junaid Hafeez, who was jailed on the basis of these accusations.
So what is new and disturbing about the ban on Aamir Liaquat Hussain? What could be more disturbing than the content of his programme? Could another way have been found? These questions are being asked by the very people who had been clamouring for the ban lest his words would lead to loss of life because of their clear incitement to violence.
By no stretch of imagination could the content of his programme be called journalism. It was an impassioned monologue made up of hate speech and incitement to violence. None of the accusations were substantiated by facts, yet one by one, all the journalists and activists across the national media who had raised the issue of the missing bloggers were slandered in a manner not seen on TV before.
All the bloggers and activists were accused of being associated with the offensive Facebook page (Bhensa) which had existed for years and had a huge following. If any association came to light after an investigation, it was never revealed.
‘Treasonous’ slogans being chanted were shown as proof in a clip. Again, without answering the ‘who, when, where and what’ (basic norms of journalism). Aamir Liaquat Hussain’s statements were sweeping and his ‘call to action’ was especially targeted towards a prominent activist – Jibran Nasir. Perceiving a real threat to his life, other media and civil society members swung into action, demanding that PEMRA shut down Aamir Liaquat Hussain’s programme.
Ideally, this matter should not have reached this stage. The gatekeepers at Aamir Liaquat Hussain’s channel (who boast of hiring the cream of Pakistani expertise) should have nipped this evil in the bud. He was after all aggressive and threatening from the get-go. The call to sober up should have been done an in-house one. What was also very disappointing was the fact that there wasn’t a peep from the PBA or UJ’s or the Pakistan Press Council. These are the bodies that need to enforce the norms of journalism to prevent any curbs being imposed on the media.
The gatekeepers at Aamir Liaquat Hussain’s channel (who boast of hiring the cream of Pakistani expertise) should have nipped this evil in the bud. He was after all aggressive and threatening from the get-go.
The reason PEMRA had to step in was because they could neither justify allowing hate speech and incitement to violence to go on unabated, nor could they ignore the stream of complaints from concerned citizens. PEMRA has in the past received flak for being ‘overactive’ in imposing fines and bans. This time the criticism came because of their inaction in the face of real threats to people’s lives and reputation.
Finally the ban was imposed. It is another matter that he has the option of having it overturned through the Court. However, he and his channel are adding to their guilt by showing the programme online and on the cable networks. With a very iffy Cyber Crime Law that has not laid out its rules of business clearly, who do the aggrieved turn to?
The dilemma that stares the rights based lobby in the face is how does a culture of bans pan out? This is not the preferred mode to deal with issues of irresponsible journalism or even hate speech. These terms are subjective and whenever PEMRA deems them kosher, no action will be taken, whatever the consequences.
There needs to be a clear distinction between hate speech and free speech. There has to be a level playing field otherwise there will be no stopping us careering down the slippery slope of banning. Ethical journalism has to be the guiding principle of whatever content makes it to the public space, be it in print, TV, radio and in the digital space.
Different media may require different regulations, but the principles of ethical journalism are universal. Let us press for their implementation.