The media is the lifeblood of an election. In Pakistan’s context, even at the best of times, both elections and the media are widely believed to be adversely manipulated and influenced not just by corporate interests but also by powerful lobbies with political objectives.

This year, this month, with the July 25 elections less than 10 days away, is an alarming case in point for the country.

The very quality of elections and the project of democratic consolidation is at stake considering that some political parties are screaming murder at being arm-twisted within the electoral process and some media groups are crying foul at being intimidated.

Some of the largest political parties are finding ithard to do politics and some of the finest media is also finding it hard to conduct journalismat a time when both the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms are needed the most.

This is especially alarming considering that the role of the media in an election time is central to the purpose of the elections to produce renewed political mandates to pursue national priorities for the medium term.

Under threat

Considering that media perceptions are critical in influencing public opinion, an intimidated media cannot help the electorate navigate the minefield of competing narratives amidst rising political temperatures by snipping away misinformation and conspiracy theories and providing the necessary information and analysis that helps people form informed opinions to make meaningful electoral choices.

Consider: the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, the representative association of the country’s 20,000 working journalists, is on a countrywide strike protesting attacks on journalists and media houses.

The Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors, the professional guild of the country’s print media editors, and the Pakistan Broadcasters Association, which represents the country’s about 50 independent current affairs TV channels and more than 150 private FM radio stations, have in recent days issued statements voicing concern and anger against what they describe is unprecedented intimidation of the media houses and working journalists that is putting journalists at risk and hurting their capacities to compete professionally within the industry.

This concern and alarm has also been shared vociferously by international media watchdogs such as Reporters Sans Frontieres, Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists through special statements in recent days.

Also, global news media brands such as BBC, the New York Times and The Guardian
have in recent days run stories detailing the wanton and persistent intimidation of the media in Pakistan as well as hounding of and violence against freelance journalists and online information practitioners that is impacting the quality of election coverage.

In a hostile environment like this, how should the media in Pakistan perform its professional remit of being the guardian of public interest in the thick of an election?

In the information and social media age, everyone is a journalist as sharing, processing and dissemination of information is an act of journalism.

Professional journalism, however, is an organised act – as opposed to being personal and random – and governed by the same set of principles it always has been: focused on public interest and advantageous for the citizens in terms of being informative and educative to the point where its current affairs version becomes ‘news you can use’.

This is why we need free and fearless media – in other words, professional media – especially in times of elections.

Media bias

It is not the easiest trick in the world but focusing on professionalism can offer a solution that respects both the opposing strands. And yet, in the absence of strong self-regulation within the industry, most of the media in Pakistan finds it easy to skirt professionalism.

Ironically what this engenders is a growing vulnerability to pressure from powerful sources, including errant state actors. While it compromises public interest, it also makes it difficult for the few media houses that want to stay professional, hence becoming vulnerable to be targeted.

The general disregard for professionalism – including downright wanton bias – by most of the media houses is troubling.

Most of the talk shows on TV being offered nowadays, in lieu of election coverage, for instance, are a poisonous menu of bias, hate speech and general intolerance for pluralist perspectives. Personal views are presented as facts and opinions masqueraded as analysis.

With very few exceptions, most media houses, including TV and newspapers, have resigned, for profit or under pressure, to compromising the interests of their audiences and prefer to provide maximum, but unfair, coverage to some parties over others.

Imran Khan gets the lion’s share of coverage – everything he does in public is beamed live. Whereas even the heads of other major parties – such as Bilawal Bhutto, Shahbaz Sharif, Asfandyar Wali, Hasil Bizenjo and Mahmood Achakzai – struggle to get similar time live on air.

It is remarkable that Bilawal’s multi-day election rallies and mammoth turnouts in Sindh in recent days have been all but blacked out by some of the media.

And yet others, like the often bile-spewing Sheikh Rasheed, get more air time than most party chiefs combined.

Other promising alternative platforms such as the Awami Workers Party, Barabari Party Pakistan and strong independent voices like Jibran Nasir stand no chance.

People have a right to hear these alternative voices; the media has no right to black them out.

No benchmark

The supposed benchmark for election coverage by the media, the Media Code of Conduct issued by the Election Commission of Pakistan, is a non-starter.

It directs the media to implement an idealist framework that is impossible to enforce, least of all by the media regulator Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, which simply does not have the capacity, clout or credibility to nudge the TV channels into a broadly professional direction.

News bulletins, for example, on most channels are out to deliberately caricature news items with a discernibly infotainment bent complete with film songs and cartoon jingles.

While talk shows in prime time – there are 147 daily talk shows on 49 channels – are mostly stuffed with the usual suspects comprising either third-tier political party representatives with the habit of only criticising their political opponents, or an army of retired military officials who unfailingly focus on caricaturing politics and politicians — none of them has a nice thing to say about Nawaz Sharif, for instance – while the hosts are, with a few exceptions, often remarkably shallow with their thematic contexts.

The Press and the Nation rise and fall together, they say. This adage rings strongly true because the inability of the media to self-regulate professionalism is matched only by the inability of the average journalist to resist self- or imposed partisanship, sensation and hysteria – resulting in the media becoming part of election-related confusion rather than the purveyor of clarity.

That the media influences public behaviour is amply clear – what happens on the talk shows in the evenings daily is an ample reflection of how the election is being conducted across the pulpits and the streets and at homes.

But without self-regulatory bodies like Pakistan Broadcasters Association, Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors, All Pakistan Newspapers Society and Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists agreeing on a joint mechanism to implement the various codes of ethics and conduct they already have, and a self-accountability on this implementation – like those in the US and most western European states – the media in Pakistan will persist in compromising public interest and continue being manipulated by the vested interests into vulnerability, even blackmail.

In the meanwhile, the quality of Pakistan’s elections will be directly proportional to the professionalism of the media.

This article first appered on Dawn.