A dangerous place for journalists
By Miranda Husain
The writer is special correspondent at Newsweek Pakistan and has worked for The Friday Times, Daily Times and Express News firstname.lastname@example.org
“It’s sad what happened to Syed Saleem Shahzad”, a reporter for a local national daily told me the day after the body of the Asia Times Online bureau chief was found. But, he went on to say, Shahzad had broken the journalistic code of honour, which demands that stories deemed ‘harmful’ to the country are either put on hold or, at the very least, not carried as breaking news.
By harmful my friend meant those stories that might prompt national security threats while also casting Pakistan in a yet more negative light. In this case, he referred to Shahzad’s most recent piece outlining how an al Qaeda cell was operating in several Karachi-based naval bases. The reporter believed that the story should have been left alone since the navy was trying to deal with the matter internally. Yet, as Shahzad had poignantly revealed, the navy high command had assured al Qaeda that once a full interrogation had been conducted, its detained operatives would simply be discharged and freed. Putting this into the public domain, my reporter friend felt, would not only be hugely embarrassing to the country’s armed forces, but could also provide the premise for an American ground assault on Pakistani soil.
Those wishing to extol Pakistan’s democratic credentials routinely point to the country’s free media. Yet this same media has a tradition of self-censorship: Be it in the form of editing out footage of protestors in Indian-held Kashmir, burning an effigy of President Zardari or a senior journalist warning staff writers against penning pieces lambasting western policies.
As unethical as this is, even more disturbing is the media’s habit of allowing itself to be cast as a middleman between the state and citizenry by attending a president or army chief’s off-the-record briefings when he sees fit to take it ‘into confidence’. This has encouraged certain elements – state, rogue-state and non-state actors – to conclude that Pakistan’s media can be co-opted to serve the agenda of those with power.
Pakistan, as we now know, is the most dangerous country for journalists. The media has acted responsibly when it has conducted workshops to help reporters in hostile areas go about their business in the safest way possible; with attention focusing on the use of impartial terminology and ensuring that personal opinions never find their way into straight news reporting. But the truth is that Pakistan, today, is effectively a conflict zone across the board with suicide attacks taking place in urban centres as well. Tragically, the media has failed to, as yet, confront this changed reality. Crime reporters working a daily beat are expected to also cover terrorism. They receive no specialised training and, usually, an editor’s primary concern remains that stories be filed to deadline.
As one former crime reporter put it to me, this takes its toll. You often find yourself surrounded by live flesh and just have to keep going, he said. When that becomes part of your normal routine, you start to resent the whole idea of the war on terror and question who is to blame, he concluded.
The fallout of this appears to have led to a new generation of journalists who see the anti-terror fight that Pakistan is waging on a daily basis as an American war that ought to be owned as such. This has prompted some, like my reporter friend, to feel that they, somehow, have a responsibility to uphold Pakistan’s sovereignty at all costs – even if that means killing stories that are in the public interest.
The media must address these new challenges to reclaim its mandate as a public information service first and foremost. If it does not, life will simply become easier for those wishing to co-opt it. And this will mean that those like Syed Saleem Shahzad who have resisted in the name of journalistic integrity, remain lone voices and, thus, sitting targets for those who see murder as the ultimate censorship.
Source: The Express Tribune