In the latest Press Freedom Index 2009, compiled on the basis of questionnaires completed by hundreds of journalists and media experts around the world, Pakistan ranked 159 out of 175 countries. Although the country “has scores of privately owned television and radio stations, putting it on the path of an information revolution comparable to that experienced by India about ten years ago,” the media is caught in “a vice between the Taliban which has stepped up its attacks and the security forces who continue in their old ways of harassing journalists,” noted Reporters without Borders. Moreover, Pakistan’s press is “increasingly belligerent in its coverage of political and socio-economic problems, despite the huge risks.”
Given that Pakistan’s media revolution occurred not too long ago, such rankings reflect the increasing need for the media to critique itself and institutionalize responsible reporting. This past Friday, eight of Pakistan’s major electronic news outlets – KTN, Samaa, Dawn News, Dunya, Express News and Express 24/7, ARY, Geo and Aaj TV – announced that they had reached an agreement on a code of conduct on the media’s coverage of terrorism. According to Dawn,
After a two-week debate on the issue, representatives of these channels agreed upon certain rules in terms of a range of issues, including the broadcast of images in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, the need for time-delays on live broadcasts, guidelines for covering hostage situations, the airing of demands and messages by terrorists, and the training and safety of news crews and reporters.
Hajrah Mumtaz, over at Dawn, further asserted,
…the independence of the media is meaningless unless the media also take upon themselves the grave duty of honest and responsible reportage. While it is by no means possible to defend the arbitrary laying of curbs upon the media by a state or government – for that would amount to censorship – it is up to news organizations to themselves come up with methods that internally regulate the content of what is being broadcast or printed.
In July, Al Jazeera English’s The Listening Post provided an informative backgrounder on the rise of Pakistan’s private news channels. In 2002, former President Pervez Musharraf set up the Pakistani Electronic Media Regulatory Authority [PEMRA] to issue the first licenses for private radio stations and TV channels. For a population just 49.9% literate and where newspaper circulation is around 6 million, such a development was monumental. Moreover, noted Jugnu Mohsin, people who owned newspapers were allowed to own cable television channels, doing away with past laws against cross-ownership. Prior to 2002, Pakistan’s state-owned PTV was the only news channel broadcast on television. Today, there are around 50 private television channels and 100 licensed private FM stations. The proliferation of Pakistan’s electronic media in such a short span of time has meant: 1) the private media is “here to stay, the days of overt suppression are over,” noted journalist Ejaz Haider, and 2) a reflection on the media’s shortcomings must be undertaken by the media itself, not the government.
Both of these points are fundamentally important. Although Musharraf’s regime liberalized the press, he also attempted to muzzle these outlets following the 2007 state of emergency, when television coverage of demonstrations and criticism of the government were considered “inflammatory.” His censorship [both GEO Television and AAJ were even taken off the air], was met with immediate backlash, proving that the media had become an institution to be reckoned with. Al Jazeera correspondent Kamaal Hyder asserted in July, “Anyone who tries to curtail the power of the media is going to fail.“
Last week, the PPP-led government suggested the Pakistani press be more “guarded” in their reporting, leading many to bristle immediately, suspicious that caution would inevitably mean censorship. PPP politician and former information minister Sherry Rehman spoke to Al Jazeera last week, saying she appreciated the media’s concerns and noted, “They need to be made stakeholders in this consultation, because if we don’t do that, then there’s going to be polarization…and that will not profit either the government or the media or society.”
Rehman’s statement emphasizes this second fundamental point – the increasing need for the maturation of the Pakistani media, a process that needs to be endorsed by the media itself. Maria Ahmed of GEO Television told Al Jazeera that the media needs to institute a “self-critiquement mechanism,” which was manifested in last Friday’s resulting code of conduct for terrorism coverage. Such developments are a positive step towards increasing the credibility of the Pakistani media – whether it’s “self-editing” the use of graphic imagery and footage in the aftermath of bombings and violence, or ensuring that information relayed through news channels do not help hostage-takers or endanger the lives of the hostages.
The code of conduct also touches on the need to ensure the safety of reporters, a timely topic given the current conflict in Pakistan and the fact that the media has been barred from covering the military’s offensive from the front lines. The issue was also raised in a media symposium organized by PBS Frontline/World in September 2009. During the conference, Pakistani journalist/filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy [who produced Children of the Taliban] discussed the danger of reporting on the front lines, asserting that increasingly more reporters are “caught between intelligence agencies and the Taliban.” She added, “The Taliban have so many splinter groups – even if you get assurances from one group that you wont get kidnapped that doesn’t stop a second or a third group from kidnapping you.”
In her experience, Obaid-Chinoy learned how necessary it was to create a detailed “security protocol,” which would be sent to the news channel she was working for or a trusted person. In the event that she was kidnapped, the protocol would provide information on all her “fixers,” [people who provide translation, as well as on-the-ground expertise and contacts], so that her contacts could find out very quickly who had taken her away, “since the first few hours [in a kidnapping] are the most critical.” News agencies and journalists, she added, must also ensure the safety of their fixers, “because they bear the brunt of the access they’ve given you.”
In today’s world of 24/7 news coverage and high-speed Internet, we are frequently inundated with information. While the media’s growth in Pakistan is laudable, it also comes with a degree of responsibility and accountability. The recently released code of conduct is only the first step towards this idea of progress.