THE uproar surrounding the United Kingdom’s efforts to manage press freedom bodes poorly for the future of Pakistan’s regulatory environment. The release last week of a 2,000-page report by a commission led by Lord Justice Sir Brian Leveson and tasked with investigating the culture, practice and ethics of the press has polarised opinion (and British politics) about how to regulate the press. In the debate lie many lessons for Pakistan.
The Leveson report primarily documents the transgressions — including phone-hacking, illegally obtaining medical records, bribery, maintaining corrupt relations with politicians and police officials — of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid, The News of the World, which was shut down last year. The report calls for British parliament to create an independent regulatory body to replace the toothless Press Complaints Commission, which is run by the news industry itself and responsible for upholding a consensus code of ethics.
Newspapers would be able to join the new regulatory body voluntarily, but those that didn’t sign up would face higher legal risk.
The new body would have a statutory underpinning and would include an arbitration system (an alternative dispute-resolution system that would need to be recognised legally). This system would help papers by reducing the cost and risk of settling disputes for both newspapers and complainants, thereby serving as an incentive for publishers to join, and making regulation effective.
While the Leveson inquiry was under way, much debate revolved around its anachronistic nature. Since it does not grapple with the difficult issues of regulating online journalism, micro-blogging, information dissemination through social networking, etc., many have asked why the British government spent over £5 million to regulate an industry that is shrinking and increasingly irrelevant (this argument makes little sense given that newspapers continue to do the bulk of investigative journalism, and that content produced for print is what is published, circulated and debated online).
Since the report’s release, however, the debate has focused on the pitfalls of state involvement in regulation (as opposed to self-regulation). Those who support Leveson’s recommendations (particularly victims of phone-hacking) say that voluntary self-regulation has failed and that regulation can only work if it is backed by legislation.
But free speech advocates say the recommended statutory underpinning of the new body will limit press freedom, and call instead for tougher self-regulation mechanisms. Rather than the use of a statute, publishers are calling for a contract system to secure participation in a self-regulatory system.
What implications does this debate have for Pakistan’s press? The first is the agreement across the spectrum that independent self-regulation is the way to go (Leveson’s report calls for legislation to incentivise participation, but continues to emphasise self-regulation). Governments and other entities should not have any power over what newspapers publish. But Pakistan should learn from Britain’s example that when self-regulation fails, others step in to monitor and curtail the press (or media at large).
This incident should ring alarm bells for the Press Council of Pakistan, which is tasked with devising and enforcing a voluntary code of ethics for the print media, but is largely powerless (ironically, in August this year, conceding that a lack of resources and staff prevented the PCP from carrying out its regulatory role, the council debated requesting the government for funds.
Thankfully, one member made the obvious point that government funding would rob the PCP of independence, and instead called for an endowment fund.)
Pakistan’s proliferating broadcasters, which have failed to devise their own voluntary code of conduct, should also pay serious heed. In 2009, 16 news channels endorsed a voluntary code of conduct regarding the live coverage of terrorist attacks. But little progress has been made beyond that, and the few clauses concerning the privacy and dignity of the victims of terrorist attacks also seem to have been forgotten, as evident from the coverage of plane crashes and, just last week, the State Life building fire.
The other lesson from the Leveson inquiry is that any state involvement in media regulation should be viewed with scepticism and extreme caution. Regulatory overstepping in Pakistan is being perfected in the broadcast sector by Pemra. The regulatory authority routinely curbs press freedom by fining and blocking channels, often to appease the egos of easily offended politicians (who can forget the channel block following the Zardari shoe incident?). It also relies on vague wording — “anti-state attitudes”, “against basic cultural values” — to arbitrarily censor content.
In the absence of a consensus code of ethics and a strong system of self-regulation by the electronic media, other entities are also stepping in. In recent months, the armed forces made veiled comments about the impact of media coverage on national security. Simultaneously, the judiciary is seen to be curbing the way in which the media can cover judges and court-related matters. These institutions point to the media’s ‘obscenity’, irresponsibility, corruption, lack of capacity, and lack of regulation to justify their interventions. In such an environment, any claims Pakistan makes about having a free and vibrant media should be treated as hyperbole.