Role of Media in Policy Formulation

This Article was published in
The Frontier Post (January 30, 2010)

By Sahibzada Hussain Mohi-ud-Din Qadri

'Information explosion' as the transformation on the media landscape has come to be known worldwide has caught the world unawares. It is now globally recognized as a fourth pillar of state along with parliament, judiciary and executive. Historically, the right to freedom of expression is traced back to United Nations Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948. This is not true. The fact of the matter is that Allah Almighty endowed this right on the angels at the time of creation of Adam. He ordained them to express their opinion freely. Likewise, Allah Almighty awarded the right to oppose to Satan for the first time. Thus those who are associated with this profession are in fact acting upon the Sunna of angels, hence a sacred duty. It is for this reason that Islam considers freedom of expression as one of the fundamental rights.

Gone are the days when governments could hide information from its consumers i.e. common people and (mis)lead people up the garden path. Now policy formulation processes are bound to be transparent as media keeps a continuous vigil. The rise of investigative journalism has added to the strength of media as a fourth pillar of state. Following points could be instructive in this regard.

Policies were manipulated in the past to the benefit of the elites because no information reached people because channels of dissemination of information did not exist. Whatever sources of information were there were under the direct or indirect control of these ruling elites. With mushroom growth of media both print and electronic, information has become easily available for the people. It is not easier any more for the vested interests to hide information. Thus this has resulted in transparency in the policy formulation.

The role of media is not just confined to make information available. It is also to educate people on the key national issues, which are concerned with lives of common people. Media conducts in-depth critiques, analyses and appraisals by discussing pros and cons of a given policy of government or any issue in an impartial and fair manner. In the process, it brings out what is good or harmful for people. Thus it informs people to oppose or support a given policy. That is how media performs the role of an opinion-maker. The aggregate result of such approach is that the governments have to be very meticulous in the formulation of policies.

Since media undertakes critical appraisals of policies in a threadbare manner, therefore, it performs the role of a national watchdog. If a government adopts a policy, which is collectively not beneficial, the media can criticize this policy so severely as to arouse people's opposition towards this policy. So powerful is this role of media as a watchdog that the governments have to sometimes withdraw themselves from their stated positions. Therefore this role of media as a protector of public rights is very important for fair and beneficial policy formulation.

This role of media as a representative of masses emerges from the above-mentioned role as a national watchdog. Through a number of methods and techniques like the columns, interviews, seminars and public forums etc, the media serves to convey the aspirations of people to the top policy makers who may otherwise not know them by other available channels.

Media is also a unifier of diverse viewpoints. At a time when a national policy may not be in accordance with popular appeal but it is in the larger interest of the country, it does educate the populace about the benefits accruing from adoption of such and such policy for the country. Such situations often arise on issues of diplomacy and foreign policy where policy has to be worked out keeping in view country's strengths and weaknesses not emotionally.

It is also worth mentioning that at times the media has tended to overstep its limits. The nature and content of political talk shows is a proof that instead of spearheading informed and constructive debate on issues of national importance, the TV anchors and hosts with the full connivance of their employers try to direct the debate in a particular direction. This attitude runs counter to the principles of neutrality, objectivity and fair play. Political talk shows give birth to more confusion instead of resolving them. The unrestrained rush to telecast ‘breaking news’ coupled with competition factor which is premised on grabbing maximum viewership is also responsible for this careless behaviour on the part of electronic media. There is a need to formulate code of conduct and settle rules of the game, which should characterize the functioning of electronic media in Pakistan. Such an arrangement should serve as watch-dog and oversee the working of media.

Times have changed. We need to change our policies accordingly. Change is always the most difficult to accept. It demands courage, conviction and willingness. We need to get common people—the real stakeholders of any state into mainstream of national decision-making. The focus of governance is to shift from 'a few' onto 'all'. For that, our policy formulation should undergo a paradigm shift. We need to evolve 'all-inclusive' rather than 'exclusive' model of governance. We had better spearhead evolutionary change rather than the one dictated by violence. The challenge is huge, so should be our resolve to overcome it. We should realize that we owe it to future generations. Let it not be said by them that we did not prove equal to the task.

Given the sorry literacy rates and poverty of mind and intellect, it is generally not possible for the people to understand intricate issues of governance. Neither do they have the leisure of apprehending these things as they are already faced with graver concerns of survival. In these circumstances, it is the responsibility of the aware and educated sections of society to form groups and associations to impact upon decision-making and policy formulation at the national level in the interest of the down-trodden sections of society. Such groups so established by the responsible citizens can go a long way in lessening the burdens of common people. At a time when political parties have abandoned their responsibility of looking after interests of poor people, such groups are need of the hour. For that we need to agree on the minimum rules of the game. NGOs, opinion leaders, social and political groups and lawyers have heavy responsibility on their shoulders in this regard.

(The writer is a PhD candidate at an Australian University)