Training of media persons

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE government’s move to establish a large number of universities in a country where only half the population is literate has been widely debated. But President Pervez Musharraf’s suggestion for a media university should not be dismissed without a second thought because this venture, if it were to materialise, will be a different one of its kind.

Pakistan has no meritorious institution for training media personnel. This need not be a highbrow university to make an impact. Even an institute which awards a post-graduate diploma — but a really prestigious one — should serve our purpose well.

We do not know what the president had in mind when he made his remarks at the presentation of the ministry of information in Islamabad. Minister Muhammad Ali Durrani, who has only recently taken over as the chief of the information outfit, was obviously trying to show his boss how effective new brooms can be and how clean they sweep.

The president’s main concern appeared to be for the better training of media persons especially at a time when media technology has made tremendous advances globally. He also spoke of the need to bridge the gap between reality and perception. According to him, if there is a conflict between the two it will adversely affect the image of the country. He was informed by the prime minister that a regular interaction of the federal ministries with the media has been planned. This is presumably designed to ensure a free flow of information.

All these issues are closely interlinked. Given the rapid development of communication technology it is no longer possible for a government howsoever authoritarian it might be to stem the flow of information and impose controls on the freedom of expression. In the modern age all governments have come to realise the futility of attempting to suppress the media, so much so that President Musharraf has spoken of the media in Pakistan as enjoying unprecedented freedom.

But that does not necessarily mean that this will result in the projection of a soft image of the country. On the contrary, an honest and professional media person will not try to gloss over the ills around him to paint a rosy picture of the economy and society. Of course, he has to strike a balance between the negative and the positive in order not to distort reality. Easy access to information will help a media person in his work since information is the raw material journalists work with. Again, it would be unwise of the government to expect the media to present the information exactly as presented by official sources.

Where does the training of journalists figure in this picture? A well trained media person would not only learn how to access information from diverse sources promptly s/he would also learn how to verify it, analyse it and present it to the reader/viewer/listener with a measure of credibility and an understanding of the issues involved. There are also many other matters that s/he has to be taught about, such as libel, sensationalism, and consideration of public interest. There is also the need to educate the reader/viewer/listener while informing him.

These issues can be handled sensitively only by a media person who has received training of a high quality. Do we have the facilities to provide this training especially at a time when the media has expanded at a rapid pace? Given the large number of newspapers that are now being published in the country and the mushrooming of television channels and radio stations, training has become the first requirement of the media sector. What pass as the mass communication departments in the various universities are really not providing the education and training that the journalists of today need. They do not even have the facilities and equipment — press, computers, radio and television studios — to impart practical training to the would-be media people.

With no exposure to the nuts and bolts of newspaper work and television and radio programme production the graduates of these departments get their real training on the job when they get employment. What they have been taught theoretically at the university amounts to a person being taught swimming without as much as entering the water. Therefore, the most urgent need of the hour is to create facilities and a highly qualified faculty for training media persons.

It is a pity that the greatest resistance to the expansion and upgrading of the existing facilities has come from those in this profession itself. On many occasions, efforts by private individuals to improve training facilities have come to nought. A case which got considerable publicity but has all but been forgotten is that of the Dr Feroz Ahmad Institute of Mass Communication at the Karachi University.

Six years ago in April 2000, Nadera Ahmad, the wife of the renowned scholar and social scientist, Dr Feroz Ahmad, who died in Washington in 1997, signed an agreement with the University of Karachi “to establish a research and educational centre for mass communication” to be named after her husband and the existing department of mass communication was to be upgraded to the level of the institute. The vice chancellor at the time was Dr Zafar Zaidi, a progressive thinking man who looked ahead in time and was willing to adopt new ideas for the benefit of the Karachi University.

The University Syndicate accepted the proposal and Nadera Ahmad invested Rs 10 million from the trust she has set up in Dr Feroz Ahmad’s name to start the construction of the building at the campus where the institute was to be housed. Six years have passed. One vice chancellor died in office and the second completed his term to give way to the third. Two PC-1s have been prepared and Rs 16 million procured from the UGC and the HEC to complete the building and furnish it minimally to make it functional.

The saddest part of this story is that the executive board comprising scholars, media professionals and others, that was to operate and maintain the institute, has been sidelined. The syndicate has now taken the stand that since this is the first time the upgradation of a department is taking place, the head of the department — who holds office by rotation — should ipso facto become the director of the institute. The initial proposal to have a high powered and eminently qualified director with a sound academic cum professional background selected through open competition has been scuttled. Another intriguing move has been to appoint the senior faculty members of the department as directors (something unprecedented in any institution of higher learning) and from what one can make out, the shifting of the department into the new building would be taken as amounting to its upgradation.

The composition and role of the institute as it was envisaged would have fulfilled two fundamental needs of an institute designed to train mass communication professionals. First its functions would include proficient practical training/education as well as research which is missing in the country. Secondly, an executive board predominantly of non-faculty members would ensure independence and autonomy.

Before Dr Attaur Rehman responds to the president’s suggestion, it would be a good idea if he looks into the original proposal for setting up the Dr Feroz Ahmad Institute of Mass Communication. He may still find some merit in it.