IN the changed times we face, there is a new government and a new opposition. The establishment has turned neutral and the world too is facing not a pandemic but a war in its backyard and a global recession. Our battle with the pandemic is over but a natural calamity has just begun.

But there is much that is old, too, for change and continuity go hand in hand. And, in the time-honoured tradition of our land, the attacks on the press, or rather the media, are not much different from the recent past.

The faces have changed, but not the principle of keeping the press under pressure. If it was Geo earlier which was taken off air for its transgressions, this time around ARY disappeared for much of August. Earlier, if it was Matiullah Jan or Asad Toor who were kidnapped or attacked, this time around Imran Riaz was arrested and FIRs registered against those who work for ARY.

Journalists/anchors have lost their jobs while many of those who suffered this fate some three years ago are now back on screen. But what has not changed is the fact that the channels and those who work for them can still be punished for airing views that prove ‘unpalatable’.

The viewership or the readership is least important in this ruthless power game.

However, more than unacceptable or problematic views and stories, it is the system which needs an overhaul. For it does not aim to fix but only punish — we don’t have defamation laws or a regulatory framework to push through improvement in journalism standards. Instead, the means are more coercive and the objective is to punish as a means to control. FIRs are registered, mysterious attacks take place, the distribution of a paper or a channel is disrupted in a way where the fingerprints, even though they are known to everyone, are also not visible.

Similarly, in a world where ‘ratings’ are all important, and yet so opaque, it is never clear if an anchor was let go for lack of eyeballs or was it just an excuse to ease the pressure, which is felt and witnessed by all but countered by none. This time around also, there is a rumour that the price one organisation had to pay for its return to favour was to bid farewell to someone within.

But this new wave has also led to an outcry over what is happening along with a gentle message for those who are now at the receiving end to remember their own behaviour when others were being targeted. More than once, others have reminded those feeling the brunt this time that they were not too concerned earlier when others, of a different ideological bent, were under attack. However, not everyone has been this generous. Some have been as unforgiving as those who came before them, refusing to recognise the pressure or the ones under attack as journalists.

When this happens, we are reminded that division in the ranks just makes the attacks a little bit easier and the ones leading the assaults just that bit more reckless. But then, the vulnerable always face the problem of bearing this burden of not uniting against the powerful. As if the problem is not the mighty but those who are weak enough to get pummelled.

But the question that comes to mind again and again is whether this constant pressure or threat of punishment has any link to the deteriorating standards of journalism. The polarisation, the reputation many organisations have of being linked with one party or another, the tilt or slant given to stories or even the choice of stories covered or not covered. All of this, after all, has coincided with the growing pressure.

Partly, this constant battle of winning approval or surviving punishment has forced the industry into survival mode, a survival which is based on ‘winning’ approval of the political players and stakeholders. There is no safety in good journalism; there is safety only in picking a side and hoping it will protect you. It is not as if the regulatory system, visible and invisible, is set up to encourage journalism. Neither is the financial system (which is a story for another day).

The viewership or readership is least important in this ruthless power game, despite the obsession with the ratings game.

And more than just standards are at stake here. Consider the recent floods. Compared to the 2005 earthquake or the 2010 floods, the coverage did not appear organic. In the early days, the issue was more or less ignored and then suddenly, every organisation jumped headlong into heavy coverage, more or less in the same week. As if everyone slumbering woke up at the same time.

(Discussions, on the ground reports, appeals for funds, everyone was at it, as they usually stumble upon the same stories and similar news priorities as to who comes first in the pecking order of the news, followed by their favourites whose corner they are allowed to pick, provided the street is chosen for them by those who matter most.)

That it had to be a humanitarian calamity before organisations felt the floods merited any special coverage or reportage is more a reflection of the journalism practised by us in these difficult times. Reporting has been the first casualty. Because it brings nothing but trouble, it is best avoided in favour of lengthy discussions on politicians and their statements. News channels have become the local version of C-Span, showing one live press conference after another. And it takes some external jolting to send boots on the ground, a decision which earlier was routine for news organisations.

But this is not the only price extracted.

In some ways, this process has killed the proverbial goose. The lopsided coverage and the absence of reporting, among other factors, has led to considerable erosion of credibility. The resulting vacuum has been filled by social media. The digital revolution has been creeping up on us, but unlike the shift from print to television, it is not being led by the traditional media houses. And if and when they do jump on the bandwagon, they may not have the social capital they enjoyed in the noughties.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, September 6th, 2022

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