Media and NGOs: a coalition is needed

BY ghazi S| IN Media Practice | 30/06/2004

Media and NGOs: a coalition is needed



Development issues do get coverage, but because politics dominates the media, such news does not stand out.


Reprinted from the NGORC Journal, Issue no.3,,  article titled, "On the same side of the river"


An interview with Ghazi Salahuddin by Joya Ali Khan



Ghazi Salahuddin is a senior journalist and columnist, and editorial director of Geo TV.  He is currently a member of the Council, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. He teaches at the Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture and serves as a member on the institution`s Board of Governors.


What is the importance of communication in the field of development? What in your point of view are the problems facing human development in Pakistan 

The importance of communication in development is very high, because people need information not only to understand the depth of their problems but also to interact with each other and to find solutions. However, in Pakistan I find there is an impoverishment in the area of communication in development. The real issue behind this is the lack of or the weakness of what I call the intellectual infrastructure in the country-the literacy level and kind of education imparted. Unless we improve this intellectual infrastructure we cannot draw much benefit from communication about the area of social development.  

At the very basic level there is a serious problem of illiteracy that you have to contend with at every level in trying to mobilize people. Even among the literate population the kind of education that is imparted is also a major problem. From the very beginning the mental outlook that is nurtured in our educational institutions is very deficient and biased towards a certain ideological point of view and an obsessive attitude towards issues like Kashmir and India. The environment on our campuses is very restrictive; there are no open debates or cultural activities. These things, ultimately subvert the ability of students to think on their own and to question what is being told to them and undermine the involvement of educated people in social issues.  

How can non-profit organizations interest the media in giving coverage to development work? 

Through human-interest coverage! To make this type of coverage possible, both media and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) will have to make a very conscious effort. The NGOs and the non-profit sector should try and find out what newspaper readers or ordinary viewers of TV channels are interested in and once they have ascertained that, they should produce communication material like press releases and documentaries that aid the media in giving developmental work adequate coverage.  

It is necessary to talk about development not in the poetic sense but rather in concrete and measurable terms. Development news should not be an effort to applaud the government`s contributions like the building of a bridge or small development project but it should portray the importance of the activity and those that are affected by the development effort.  

Most organizations and inDIViduals approach the media when they want some kind of promotion or publicity for their work. This results in a conflict since the newspapers are not very interested in events and issues unless there is some element of what is called spot news-there is some incident involved. NGOs should understand this interest and supply the spot news in terms of an incident and use that opportunity to also provide some facts about the background and the underlying issues. For instance a Karo-Kari incident would generally attract media attention. This should then be used as the point of interest and at the same time facts should be supplied about the practice and the relevant social customs so that the whole issue is highlighted in addition to the specific incident.  

There is a view that there is very little coverage of development issues in the media. Do you agree? 

Development issues do get coverage, but because politics dominates the media, development news does not stand out. Over the years there has been an increase in the amount of coverage that highlights the work of NGOs and non-profit organizations in their development effort. Similarly there has also been an increase in highlighting the perspective of the people and how development issues affect them. We have magazines like Herald and Newsline that have been doing very good reporting on development issues but we hardly have any readership interested in them. The main problem is the lack of interest of the people and the poor intellectual environment. 

The impression regarding NGOs has also been a limiting factor in the coverage that their work gets in the media. One of the major problems so far has been that most NGOs themselves do not portray a very positive picture of the work they are doing. There is an impression that NGOs are funded by foreign donors and therefore are following a foreign agenda and do not have the interest of the country at heart. And that too much emphasis is put on seminars, workshops and discussions and not enough on getting actual work done. This negative image needs to be changed if the work of NGOs is to be portrayed adequately. One way of improving the image of the whole sector is to have some kind of network of NGOs, or an organization that could deal with the media and communication issues. 

What role has the mainstream press played in the development process in Pakistan 

Unfortunately, the English language press is read by a fairly small number of people and many of them belong to the establishment or are conformists in the sense that they would not cause trouble against the establishment. It is this lack of rebellion that has caused the English press to stay away from critically reporting on development issues. 

On the other hand the problem with the Urdu press has been that people think it is read by the ordinary people-those who are not intellectually very sophisticated or perhaps those who are more religious than others. Therefore the Urdu press has always been very conservative in its approach to various issues and has not been able to portray the issues to any level of satisfaction.  

What role have the television channels played in the development process in Pakistan 

The state owned television channels have highlighted some important development processes and issues but in a very partisan way. They mainly highlight the achievements and results of development projects from the perspective of the Government.  

The private sector television channels have now started highlighting some of these issues in greater detail. One of the things that the new private channels have started doing is to report issues "between the lines". Although the private channels have progressed from the typical pro-government reporting it will continue to be a struggle to have complete freedom of the media in the country.  

What would be the ideal relationship between the media and the development sector? 

Ideally, it needs to be a symbiotic relationship. It is in the media`s interest to cover developmental issues properly to get credibility and it is in the development sector`s interest to convey their messages to the people through media. I have always believed that both these sectors are working for the same basic purpose; i.e. benefit of the society. They are on the same side of the river. 

The impression that there is some kind of disconnect between the media and the development sector needs to be removed somehow. There should be a strategy devised with the help of both media professionals and representatives of the development sector to remove this impression and create the new mutually beneficial relationship. 

What is the role of the Government in promoting development communications? 

The prime role of the Government should be to create an environment in which the people from media and the citizen sector can do their work professionally and can communicate freely without fear of any repercussions. The government has access to information that relates to developmental work and should ensure that this information is made available to the relevant stakeholders. Though there is a lot of freedom in the media now but it is still not possible to be very candid about certain issues. Unless we are open about our basic social ills we cannot hope to be able to resolve them.  

There is also a big problem of religious intolerance in the country, which affects all our intellectual and developmental activities negatively. It is this religious extremism that feeds primitive practices like Karo-Kari and influences other issues like the status of women. Religious extremism creates the kind of intolerance in which communicating freely becomes either just not possible or very difficult. Controlling this extremism is also the responsibility of the Government so the media and development sector are able to tackle issues without fear of censorship from religious groups. Again though some changes have come about in this scenario the government has not been able to control these elements successfully so far.  

Is there a mechanism for accountability of the media in Pakistan? What is the way forward? 

Unfortunately, the media itself has no agreed upon code of ethics. Ideally people working in a field should know what code of ethics they have to abide by and they should be held accountable if they do not follow it. In Pakistan, there is no press council where people could go and file grievances against the media and the legal process is very tedious and discouraging therefore the media is not held accountable at any level.  

Newspaper owners, publishers and editors have been discussing this issue with the government for a long time and have differing opinions about certain issues like what kind of legal process should be established and who should control it. In other countries the media has self-regulatory policies and although that does not become a substitute for the legal process, it provides a quick remedy to the members of the public to have their complaints redressed. 

Interestingly enough although we have some of the most modern communication technology available in the country we are still using very primitive practices professionally. We have not really risen to the level of professionalism and ethics that this modern technology demands.  

How can media coverage of development issues be improved in future? 

What is needed in the first instance is a concerted effort to improve the intellectual environment in our country. This is mainly the responsibility of the government with help from the media and the development sector. Then a coalition between the non-profit sector and the media should be established to develop positive links between the media and the non-profit sector. Together they must strive to improve the quality of communication that could help in social development.








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