Why Pakistan's media needs a code of conduct
- 24 October 2011
- From the section South Asia
Pakistan's media landscape has exploded over the last decade. But it is still the most dangerous place on earth to be a journalist and there are now calls for a strict code of conduct to protect the press and the public. Nosheen Abbas investigates the chaotic world of Pakistani journalism.
In 2008 a colleague of mine was reporting from the scene of a horrific bomb blast at a police station in a busy market place, Aapbara.
Television crews were there filming the carnage and as medical workers desperately worked to save lives, one cameraman tapped a medic on the shoulder and asked him to remove the victim from the ambulance so that he could film him putting the injured man inside the vehicle.
He had missed it the first time.
This kind of behaviour is not uncommon, says BBC Urdu correspondent Aijaz Maher.
It is one of the reasons why there are growing calls for a code of ethics for Pakistan's media where journalists are operating in an industry still finding its feet.
'Unhealthy' ratings war
In 1999, after Pervez Musharraf overthrew democratically-elected Nawaz Sharif in a coup, the president-general liberalised the awards of licences for private television channels.
There was a spate of new media groups but it wasn't long before Gen Musharraf began to keep the media on a short leash through censorship and fines on those who criticised the establishment.
However, today the Pakistani media are strong, often seen as another pillar of Pakistani society.
But many agree that the hyperactivity of breaking, rolling news has meant objectivity taking a back seat.
"There's a war for ratings and the competition is unhealthy," Zaffar Abbas, editor of Dawn newspaper, says.
Even though parliamentarians proposed a code of conduct for the electronic media to control the graphic coverage of terror attacks, there are still major errors.
The gruesome picture of what many believed was the corpse of Osama Bin Laden was broadcast across Pakistani media - it turned out to be a fake.
More recently, an image of a bearded man wearing a substantial white turban and a brown blazer standing next to former US President Ronald Reagan was reprinted in many Pakistani dailies as an image of Reagan with the notorious Afghan militant Jalaluddin Haqqani.
But Haqqani has never visited the US. The picture, is in fact of an Afghan mujahideen commander called Younis Khalis.
And last year a number of Pakistani newspapers admitted they had been hoaxed after publishing reports based on fake Wikileaks cables containing anti-Indian propaganda.
Clearly the right questions were not asked at the critical moments before publication.
The discussion of a code of conduct has been in the works for a long time in Pakistan. In 2011 the government set up the Press Council and appointed a chairman and members.
"This council will receive complaints against newspapers and television channels," says IA Rehman, head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
Recently, prominent journalist Najam Sethi was targeted on a local television channel which excoriated him (and his daughter) for being anti-Pakistan and collaborating with the United States.
Mr Sethi's life is already under threat because of his outspoken and critical journalism. But a tirade from a high-profile TV host shows that media personalities with clout can be defamatory without being held accountable.
"Sadly, although the independent media has been urged to develop its own guidelines it has shown little interest in doing so. Commercial interests seem to outweigh social responsibility at the moment," says Farhanaz Ispahani, a member of Pakistan's National Assembly and media adviser to President Zardari.
But while the media scrambles for higher ratings and some journalists continue to spew hatred, the effectiveness of the Press Council is questionable.
Pakistan is a place where violence against women is commonplace. The coverage is instant but the treatment of the stories is like walking through a minefield.
One case in point is a girl who was gang-raped in Karachi last year. It was covered extensively, but some newspapers named the victim, giving her address and - to add insult to injury - a minister appeared on TV implying she had a "bad character".
The case of a female doctor allegedly raped by a military official in 2005 just disappeared from news stories. Former President Pervez Musharraf made a statement in defence of the accused before the investigation was even over.
Asma Jahangir, now the Supreme Court Bar president, called it a "cover-up". Pakistani authorities deny this, but there was no follow-up in the local media.
Those journalists who do end up investigating stories and implicate the state or invite the anger of religious groups are often allegedly intimidated by either official security forces or militant groups.
The most recent example is of Saleem Shehzad, a journalist for Asia Times, who wrote an article about al-Qaeda infiltration in Pakistan's navy and was found dead after he was allegedly abducted by Pakistani intelligence officials.
Human rights groups say more journalists have been killed in Pakistan than in any other country in recent years.
But another complication to this story is the feeling among a number of journalists and producers that some among them are "turncoats" who also work for intelligence agencies.
So within a chequered yet important industry, efforts to come up with an agreed set of media guidelines remain elusive.
A code of conduct may not make Pakistan a safer place for journalists - but it will begin the process of institutionalising professionalism in the industry.