December Issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

When a group of nine electronic media outlets agreed that their coverage of terrorism needed improvement, it was an acknowledgment that there was growing anger at the profusion of dead bodies, intrusive reporting in hospitals and the unseemly badgering of the relatives of victims. It was decided that the participating news channels would not show gory images and dead bodies, would not identify victims of terrorist attacks until their families had been told and not give away troop movements. This final point was a large problem during the coverage of the Lal Masjid operation and in such cases, stations will now be willing to institute a tape delay in their coverage.

While reported as the establishment of a code of conduct, Azhar Abbas, managing director at Geo, is quick to point out that these are only “guidelines” and not a binding agreement. The purpose behind introducing these guidelines, he says, was an acknowledgment that there are areas where improvement was needed. Both he and Amir Zia, director current affairs of Samaa, say that viewers had been criticising TV stations and this was a way to address those issues. The initiative to come up with these guidelines, says Zia, was taken by three or four senior journalists — he mentions Azhar Abbas, Talat Hussain of Aaj and Abbas Nasir of Dawn News.

The guidelines, says Zia, reflect “the growing maturity of the electronic media.” But he acknowledges that there is still more to do. Sensationalism, he feels, is still a problem, particularly “talk-show hosts and news anchors who level false allegations.” He believes that the lack of enforcement of libel and defamation laws has contributed to this free-for-all.

There are individual cases, though, when the electronic media should make exceptions in the public interest. An example of this would be the Swat flogging video, where the shocking violence of the video was extremely effective in showing the brutality of the Taliban and may have been instrumental in changing public opinion. Both Abbas and Zia agree that exceptions such as this can be made.

At a time when the electronic media has been under greater scrutiny and with PEMRA hinting that it may institute a code of conduct itself, these guidelines show that the media is maturing. The process may be slow and not as all-encompassing as some would like, but a start has been made. Greater viewer scrutiny will ensure that it goes further.

This story appeared as a sidebar within a bigger article, Freedom with Responsibility.

Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.