“I’d say it was a failure at both fronts — at the media’s end and a larger one at the government’s side. It was a big story, everyone was going to cover it, but it needed to be done with certain rules in mind,” said Fahad Hussain, a noted columnist and electronic media professional.
The story he mentions unfolded on August 15, 2013, when a heavily armed Mohammad Sikandar held the Blue Area of Islamabad hostage for over six hours while he demanded the imposition of Sharia Law in Pakistan. Glued to their television screens, the citizens of Pakistan watched the entire drama unfold live on the many news channels that were broadcasting it. Sikandar got the attention he so badly wanted, along with live interviews; he is now a household name.
Reporting on a conflict situation, especially one that involves hostages and rescue operations, is an extremely sensitive and risky affair. And in the case of Sikandar, a lot of basic rules of journalism were broken — formal and informal rules and indeed, rules the media had set for itself once upon a time.
Rule: No live interview of any hostage taker.
Broken: Sikandar interacted with television media crew on location and his demands were broadcast.
Rule: Troop movement and deployment should not be shown and locations should not be given up as it can endanger the lives of hostages.
Broken: Sikandar’s movements were tracked in both close and long shots, security forces cordoning the area and closing on to him were shown.
Rule: Always assume that the hostage taker has access to your reporting.
Broken: Sikandar’s wife was constantly seen talking on her phone. The person on the other end could have been updating her on the aspects of the event being broadcast on TV that they weren’t privy to.
“When there is a total blackout of information, the media will do anything to get whatever information it can,” said Hussain, stressing on the importance of having an official spokesperson from the government or the security forces’ side. “It helps you draw parameters, you get real-time hard information.
The government should have Standard Operating Procedures in place so that whenever breaking news or a developing story happens, they can relate information in a timely manner.”
“Did they learn anything from it?” he continued, “No. Would the coverage be the same in the case of another similar incident? Yes. Are the government and media better off this way? Absolutely not.”
The rules mentioned above stem from a code of conduct developed by the media itself, in response to another, far deadlier incident: the attack on the GHQ in Rawalpindi in 2009, where, in some cases, troop deployment details and other sensitive information was telecast. Eventually, the government imposed a media blackout on two major television news networks, albeit briefly.
It was time for the media to introspect as to where they were going wrong.
Subsequently, a meeting of the directors of various channels, editors of newspapers and journalists took place in Karachi and Islamabad. “It was basically the result of watching us cover terrorism day in and day out in 2008-09. It was reaching a point where we (all of the news channels) were just getting hysterical,” said Hussain who initiated the move. “It was born out of an informal discussion I was having with some other colleagues, who are heading other channels. We thought: ‘why not get together and talk about what we can do’. From there it became a little more serious.”
Collectively, they chartered what would later be referred to as the “Code of conduct for media broadcasters or cable TV operators”. These were rules that the channels would follow regarding the coverage of conflict, hostage situations and the depiction of violence on TV. “I believe the various news directors came up with 15-16 points,” said Mazhar Abbas former Secretary General of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, “There was also a delay system (between reporting and going live) which some channels follow to this day. Even if someone violated a rule, there and then, colleagues from other channels would contact them and remind them of the rules.”
The system stayed in place for a few months. And like most good things in Pakistan, it eventually fell apart. “The idea was good but the support of media owners wasn’t there,” said Abbas, “The position that an editor enjoys in a newspaper is what the position of the director news should be in a TV channel. Ultimately it’s the pressure from the management that influences the news. The power of the editor is decreasing.” News channel owners are essentially taking over the role of editors themselves.
So if the media failed to follow the rules that it set for itself, does that mean that a government clampdown is inevitable? “That can only happen when you push people to a point where they say they’ve had enough,” responded Hussain, “I do agree that if we don’t halt the slide we’ll lose the people we are catering to — our viewers.”
Given Pakistan’s history with state censorship, the idea of government control over broadcast and print is unpalatable. “Regulations have always been misused by the government,” argues Abbas. “Whether in the form of press censorship or advisors, the advisors adopt a ‘different’ method … that is how corruption in the media started. The government started bribing media using advertisements. That’s why nowadays you don’t see many stories against the government. It’s a Rs50-60billion market and everyone wants access to it. In that race, independence of the media has been compromised in many cases. Media channels in Pakistan are private, but certainly not independent.”
What about the official government regulatory body already in place? “Pemra has lost its credibility as an independent body,” responded Abbas, “It never has been one. From its chairman to its members, everyone is nominated by the president. It has failed to execute any of its own laws.” What then is the solution?
“Setting up an independent ombudsman would be a better option to issue notices or take complaints. You have to have some kind of a forum, which is not available in the electronic media. It would work even if the government implements Pemra laws, but with an amendment that the chairman Pemra is appointed by the parliament and not by the president. Make him accountable to the parliament,” he stressed.
Setting up an independent body with the contribution and consensus of news directors, editors and journalists is one of the more ‘practical solutions’, according to Hussain. “But where does that initiative come from?” he questioned, “The government, Pemra, Ministry of Information, etc. have to go beyond their own, and that’s easier said than done.” And this is where the choice of regulator becomes crucial
“It is very difficult for a person who has never dealt with the newsroom, to come up with an implementable code of conduct,” he stated, “Which is why ours worked for as long as it did — it was a product of people who are familiar with the nuts and bolts of the newsroom functions. If we are to have a workable code of conduct it has to be born out of people in the newsroom.”
Courtesy: DAWN
Written By: Madeeha Syed

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