2008 another year of trial and tribulation for journalists -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

2008 another year of trial and tribulation for journalists

LAHORE: Fault lines of the media in South Asia were exposed and laid bare once again following the terror attacks in Mumbai, India’s economic and financial metropolis. The year 2008 that witnessed the welcome restoration of democratic process in Pakistan, Maldives and Bangladesh and the coming into power of communists through pluralist democratic elections in Nepal – after the end of monarchy – proved to be yet another year of trial and tribulation for the media and media persons in the region, said an annual media report released by the South Asian Media Commission (SAMC) on Tuesday.

On the one hand, 20 journalists lost their lives and, on the other, media, especially electronic, played a shockingly irresponsible role in fanning jingoist hysteria and advocating a violent clash between India and Pakistan to scuttle the ongoing efforts to open up the region and its potential for development and progress under peaceful conditions.

Working journalists in both India and Pakistan also shared the tragic deaths in equal numbers – seven each – during the year under review. Equal count of two each was also the death toll shared by Afghanistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Handing over of the editorial control to business managers in most media organizations in South Asia, with the proliferation of both electronic and print media, has proved to be the main reason for falling standards and the growing mistrust of the media, with few exceptions.

The state of media in individual countries of South Asia included in this report provided an opportunity to be aware of the issues and problems the media was facing during 2008. Pakistani media began the year 2008 under threats and censorship, bias in state television, and a widespread ban on live broadcasting limiting the public’s right to information before the country went to the polls on February 18. Curbs on the media prohibited coverage of election rallies, live call-ins, live talk shows, live coverage of protests, or any live broadcasts that could show the government in a negative light, severely restricting the right to free expression.

The November 3, 2007 decrees by which President Pervez Musharraf curbed the media remained in force, even though the state of emergency was lifted on December 15.

Officials from the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) interfered with the editorial policy by calling newsrooms and directing the news line up. As part of its media crackdown, the government, through the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), imposed a new, voluntary code of conduct on the electronic media that formalized many of the restrictions put in place on November 3.

The government effectively coerced broadcasters into accepting a revised version of this “voluntary” code by threatening closure of channels. Geo TV, which was forced off the air for 77 days and incurred financial losses to the tune of at least 25 million dollars, was finally restored on the cable network on January 21.

Charges and the threat of charges under Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) were used to intimidate journalists. After the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on December 27, cases under the act were registered against dozens of journalists in Sindh.

After the polls, the new government in Pakistan moved to lift restrictions on the media imposed by President Pervez Musharraf, introducing a bill in parliament. However, even if the November 3 changes to the PEMRA Ordinance are removed and the harsher restrictions on the media undone, it will still not address the major distortions in the nature of this law.

Journalists were particularly vulnerable in parts of the country experiencing conflict and insurgency. Violence by political parties as well as religious and separatist groups threatened media freedom in the country this year. Seven journalists were killed, several arrested and media houses attacked. The authorities issued new guidelines for setting up district and state-level monitoring committees for private TV channels to keep an eye on cable operators and TV channels. Adding to the woes for media personnel, the rapid growth in media outlets has not been accompanied by an assurance of fair and decent working conditions.

“In bringing the horrors of Mumbai home to millions of households in the country, Indian media came under criticism for not following the ethics of media coverage in such contingencies. The media seriously needs to resolve the ethical issues in a manner that is consistent with conflict sensitivity,” the report said.

In India, the hardest-hit conflict zones became dangerous for journalists to operate in. Recent murders of journalists in Manipur and Assam and the killing of two journalists in cross-fire incidents in Jammu and Kashmir in 2008 underscore the extreme risks and difficulties for media personnel living and working in India’s regions of conflict, the report added.

Journalists in Jammu and Kashmir and the North-East are under tremendous pressures from all sides to report in line with the interests of rival non-state and state groups. Independent reporting and critical analysis in these states – which also include Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim – yield violent targeted responses.

“Afghanistan has seen a surge in new publications, radio stations and TV channels but journalists who work there may do so at their own peril. Destabilized by a civil war growing increasingly violent, Afghanistan failed to provide protection and security to its journalists this year. Violence generated by the political instability and social unrest continued to endanger correspondents from both the local and international press,” the report said.

More than 15 Afghan women journalists have been attacked, threatened and reduced to silence. In addition to outright violence, assault and systematic intimidation, reporters face obstruction from officials and authorities who, in clear violation of the law, routinely deny them access to information, the report added.

“There was a significant drop in the number of physical assaults and death threats this year, but journalists in Bangladesh had to struggle to operate freely. They frequently faced harassment and intimidation by the authorities and representatives of the main political parties,” the report said.

Bangladesh’s media faces pressure from politicians unwilling to accept media criticism, an army with a contested press freedom record, and an insufficiently independent judiciary. Many fear that the country’s reputation for impunity gives a green light to violence against journalists. In the meantime, the media itself is largely politically polarised and its credibility is on the line.

Media outlets in Bangladesh are politically polarised, and tend to favour either the Awami League or the BNP, the two main political parties. Journalists should attempt to bridge this divide by agreeing on best practices of journalism, rather than focusing on supporting particular political parties, the report said.

Source: The News