World Press Freedom Day
Truth or Dare

How press can play its role effectively?

What we need to 'Unlearn' to become a professional journalist?

© Aamir Amjad / Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom Pakistan

A free press forms the foundation of a democratic society, especially in a time with fast evolving technology. The press plays a fundamental role in informing decision-makers and legislators of public opinion, and informing the public about the performance of all arms of the state, but most important informing the public of a government’s performance so that they can decide who to vote for in elections, and enable them to know where their taxpayer money is being spent.

This exchange of information is critical in a democracy, and it is for this reason that constitutions of democratic states protect the fundamental rights of speech, press freedom, and information among others.

For the press to play its role effectively, it is critical that information is relayed in a manner that is reliable; a diversity of views presented; and access to information is ensured.

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Breaking News vs Reliable News

Reliability of information is very important in a day and age where information is proliferated in a multitude of ways thanks to technological advancements that has given us social media. With the spread of misinformation and disinformation being rife, it is all the more critical for the press to act responsibly and inculcate processes of due diligence to ensure that information being relayed to the public is verified. The temptation of breaking the news first must be resisted in the interest of reliable news reaching people. It is all too easy to rely on information sent via messaging applications or social media; but it must not be forgotten that anybody can write up something that psychology shows that people tend to share information that they find believable without checking it. It is better for media houses to inculcate rigorous fact-checking mechanisms at every level rather than give clarifications or issue apologies later. Often times the damage is already done.

It is also important the media provide some historical perspective and context in news that they cover.

Usama Khilji

Diverse World Views

Presenting a diversity of views is another important job of the media. This includes diversity in terms of identity of sources and commentators who are interviewed for news stories or talk shows. This also means that more than one side of a story is explored and presented to the reader, so that the ultimate judgment can be made by them rather than presenters or authors. Diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, political spectrum, region, nationality, race, etc are all important, and something that must be made practice at media houses and news startups. It is also important the media provide some historical perspective and context in news that they cover. Representation of news form different parts of a country and the world are also important, as well as representation of different groups rather than only those close to the journalists that are reporting which is often heavily concentrated in large major cities.

Pakistan: Right to Information Request

Ensuring access to information is another important role of the media. Pakistani citizens’ right to information is guaranteed by Article 19-A of the Constitution that was brought in by the 18th amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan.

The article 19-A states that 

Right to information: Every citizen shall have the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by law

This means that any Pakistani citizen can submit a right to information request to any government body which are liable to respond within a stipulated time with provision of the requested information. In case they cannot do so, a justification has to be provided which a citizen has the right to appeal before the Information Commission or Ombudsperson. This is a provincial subject so appeal avenues exist in all provinces as well as at the federal level. This mechanism ensures democratic accountability and provision of information to citizens. However, ensuring the right to information also means that information flows are not disrupted not only by state controlled measures such as censorship, financial policies such as advertising, and denying access to the press; but also that media represents a holistic picture rather than a restrictive one on any given issue.

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Journalists: Gatekeepers who need to uphold impeccable standards

Journalists and editors are gatekeepers of information in a democratic society and for them to be deemed reliable, bipartisan coverage and reportage of issues that impact citizens the most is important in a manner that is verified, contextually accurate, done sensitively but objectively, and keeping in mind diversity and inclusion. Ensuring due diligence in these aspects can increase the respect and reliability of the media at a time that concerted efforts are made by anti-democratic actors to delegitimize the press. The press must assert its freedom by demonstrating impeccable standards of journalism that can cement its role by dedicating itself to serving taxpayers and voters in a democracy.

Journalism as a profession is the business of truth. At least that is what it’s mandate is, and those who adhere to these principles pay a high price in making sure it stays that way. However, the proliferation of the news platforms and practitioners has seen a slipping of the standards, which has always been a source of pain for the puritans. Realising the importance of learning how to sift through the clutter and impart the truth, FNF Pakistan office engaged the IAF Alumni in the country to arrange training in 2021 for young journalists under the title Saaf Sahafat (Clean journalism). During this training Usama Khilji trained media practitioners with the tools and knowledge on how to fact check the information that comes to them for onward dissemination.