Social Monitoring Of Media | Javed Jabbar

April 2013

Unlike self-regulation which is intra-sectoral, unlike State regulation which is mandatory, social monitoring should begin and proceed with a willing, active two-way participation by both civil society groups and the media themselves.

However, if media do not cooperate in some aspects, monitoring groups should not be deterred from the aim and action of analyzing media’s own policies, conduct and content.

While media are plentiful in number, already formally organized, well-resourced entities vigilantly guarding their interests and freedoms, civil society groups specifically focussed on media are very few in number and are comparatively, severely under-resourced. They are often, if not wholly dependent on funding support by overseas donor-foundations.

The scope for social monitoring can be precise as also fuzzy. For instance : because Governments and official regulatory bodies are often reluctant to caution media, or to take punitive action against media because of being instantly accused of curbing “freedom of expression”, social monitoring forums can determine when media are breaching laws, rules, regulations...and getting away with such disregard. Subjects that would come under such purview include unsubstantiated accusations of corruption or misdemeanour against public figures normally made through sweeping statements by both guests and hosts of talk shows as also excessively long mid-breaks crammed with advertising.

Another aspect of social monitoring could be calls by civil society for coverage of public interest issues and coverage of examples of excellence and integrity both in the official and non-official sectors of education, health care, utilities, etc. These rarely, or do not ever receive adequate attention of the media which are pre-occupied with bad news.

Yet another dimension of social monitoring could be to inform the public of possible conflicts-of-interest in the media sector. When proprietors of media also own or co-own manufacturing units or service companies or agricultural holdings or have covert alignments with political or financial elements, the public deserves to know whether the nature of coverage given by those particular media is influenced by such other interests.

Greater transparency is also needed in data about the mass media. The actual number of copies of a newspaper printed and sold (required to be published by the newspaper itself in several countries but not in Pakistan). The consequences arising from the advent of media-buying houses. These purchase space and time in bulk for advertisers : what is the impact on rates, costs, volumes devoted to commercial advertisements in preference to news or analytic comment? The influence of audience-measuring agencies on shaping prime-time content and on dumbing down standards to reach the highest numbers with the lowest common denominators, and other similar factors. While doing so, the line between sharing information that is in the public interest, and the right to privacy of media can be respected.

When this writer, in a voluntary work capacity, initiated the formation of the Citizens' Media Commission of Pakistan (CMCP) in December 1997, to the best of one's knowledge, that was the first forum of its kind in Pakistan.

A forum independent from three sectors : Government, media and commercial corporations.

The intent was to provide a perspective on media issues from a purely public interest perspective. CMCP commenced by observing Electronic Media Freedom Day on 14th February of each year demanding the freedom to operate private electronic media channels. CMCP conducted regular activities in all 4 Provinces and Islamabad for about 8 years, including publication of analytical reports and recommendations for reform of Government's media policies and media's own policies and practices.

CMCP sustained its advocacy activism for several years and can rightly claim credit for catalyzing action for the enforcement of PEMRA while being unable to end State control of PTV/PBC (even during this writer's tenure in the Musharraf Cabinet ! ). But the forum did not maintain its active status after about 2005 for various reasons, including the unwillingness of this writer to indefinitely continue shouldering the task of leadership . One wanted others to take over … yet, eventually, none were willing !

CMCP's experience illustrates the need for any civil society body specifically focussed on the media to ensure at least three elements :

First, A group of citizens who care deeply enough about the subject to continue giving time and resources to the cause for several years.

Second, Use the Internet through a dedicated website to disseminate results of monitoring and analyses of media content to prevent dependence on mass media themselves for the projection of the findings. Though this may restrict the ability to reach the audiences of mass media, an Internet website will be an effective beginning.

Third, Build networks and coalitions with civil society groups specializing in other subjects in order to mobilize broader participation in the process.

The basic aim of social monitoring of media must remain to strengthen the integrity, balance, quality and freedom of media.

(The writer is the founding convenor of the Citizens’ Media Commission of Pakistan 1997-2005 and former Information Minister)