What can media do in present conflict?
The case study of Sri Lankan media during one of the bloodiest conflicts in their history is interesting in the context of challenges which the vibrant and vocal Pakistani media is facing today. They have been warned by the government and threatened by the militants. What should be the role of the media in the present scenario?
If Interior Minister Ch. Nisar Ali Khan has warned the media against what he called glorifying terrorists and airing interviews of their supporters, the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) too threatened the media against the security forces’ projection.
The question is, are we ready to address these issues more seriously than we have been dealing it for the past several years. Deadline is important but more importantly is the “redline,” which the media is not suppose to cross. During the SL conflict, I visited Colombo a few years back, as part of a fact finding mission, to study the challenges and threats which the journalists were facing during the war. They too faced threats from the government as well as the Tamil Tigers. They were also divided, but more on ethnic lines like Sinalis and Tamils. Journalists feared each other outside and also inside the newsroom in the press conferences during these years. They used to suspect and normally avoid talking particularly in other’s presence.
In Pakistan also we have division and differences and the fear factor also exists. However, journalists in Pakistan often are on one page, when their colleagues come under attack and expressed the resolve to defend the press freedom.
The Tamil journalists in particular were scared and the government did not want too many “negative stories” against the operations or pro-Tamil Tigers. The Sri-Lankan state was very clear about its counter terror narratives and once they decided to go all out, they never looked back. Perhaps, we are still confused though the conflict here is more threatening for the very existence of the state itself.
The media in Sri Lanka was told by the state not to glorify terrorists, particularly Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, whom many described as the most ruthless in the world of terror. He had an army of suicide bombers including hundreds of women. When he was killed not many stories about the circumstances in which he was killed came on the surface. Journalists were only allowed to visit the war zone when it was completely cleared. There is no exact data of what exactly happened, though International human rights groups had raised serious questions about the human rights abuses. In the end Sri Lanka declared victory over Tamil Tigers.
The national and international media hardly knows what exactly happened inside the compound in Abbottabad operation in which Osama Bin Laden was killed. It was after few days that local and foreign journalists were allowed to visit the site of the incident.
However, in the post-war the Sri Lankan government started addressing issues like economic deprivation, lack of job opportunities and poverty particularly in the Tamil community, which were some of the causes of extremism and militancy.
There was so much fear within the media that the Tamil journalists even avoided asking questions in the presence of their Sinali colleagues. There were only few neutral voices in both the camps. Some of the journalists, who were in the conflict zone, spoke to the delegation from “unknown locations.”
Tamil journalists suspected some of their Sinali colleagues as supporters of law enforcement agencies while the Sinali journalists feared that a section of Tamil journalists were close to Tamil Tigers. Thus truth became the major casualty in this controversy.
I am not well aware of the post-war media in Sri Lanka, but there are not many stories about attacks and threats against journalists, which indicate that the situation has improved or who knows we may not be getting all sides of the stories.
Now if we compare the present challenges which the Pakistani media is facing today in the post 9/11, we may find few similarities particularly when it comes to threats, attacks and pressure from all sides. Pakistan’s death toll is much higher than that in whole Sri Lankan war and the conflict here may take few years more to end, if at all it ended. As the conflict is likely to escalate in the coming months, the media will face far more challenges as they are also facing the most serious crisis of “professionalism.”
Unlike in Sri Lanka, there are multiple conflicts in Pakistan from Fata to Balochistan. India is a common factor in Sri Lanka and Pakistan’s major conflict, but the SL army focus was only on Tamil Tigers. Here there are dozens of militants groups, both local and foreign, which allegedly have safe havens and sleeper cells. For years, Pakistan became the breeding ground for global terrorism and it resulted in dozens of non-state actors.
The Pakistani media does not have the kind of ethnic divide like Tamil and Sinali, but we are not united either. We are also facing serious issues of impunity as out of over 100 journalists killed in 12 years, only cases of two were decided while few are pending with courts for years. No accused in majority of cases was arrested and except in the case of Saleem Shahzad, no report of Judicial Inquiry was made public.
The last serious effort, which the Pakistani journalists made to improve professionalism and be more responsible, was in 2008 and again in 2010. Serious questions can be raised about the role of the successive governments, including the present PML-N government. They were neither serious then not today. Sadly, the media houses, despite target attacks on their offices and staff, have not taken any adequate measures. In 2008, Media Complaints Commission was proposed along with a code of ethics and in 2010 all news directors agreed on a 16-point code as how to report a conflict and what should be avoided on the screen. The Pakistani media today finds itself in a very difficult situation — how to report a conflict? What can be the possible consequences of not reporting or complete blackout of news or any statement? Are we ready for all this?
The question is, where the media should draw the line? How we should cover an event? What should be the code for live coverage in a hostage situation? Is our news or programme anchors or reporters language journalistically correct?
It is true that today’s most vocal media lacks in capacity, training and to some extent competence particularly in covering some of dangerous assignments. Many of our colleagues become the victims in such areas.
Ch. Nisar has rightly pointed out the role of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, Pemra, which by and large is under the government control. Had Pemra been more responsible and an effective body of professionals, neither the government nor the opposition had any problems. Thus, he should put this question to Information Minister Pervez Rasheed and PM’s advisor Irfan Siddiqui, who were assigned this job about a year back. Since, the Pemra has been acting on the whims of the government since its inception, it became a controversial body. Thus, how long will it take for the government to make it an effective and independent body, depends on the government and Parliament.
If there is a will, there is always a way. Sri Lankans showed the will and they got the way to address the issue and restore normalcy. We are still confused and so is our media. All demand code of ethics and code of conduct for the media. It is very much there, if someone really wants to implement it. For this, we have to think above our commercial and marketing interest.
The government looked serious, the army looked serious, but is the media serious to address its own problems? Apparently, it is not. If nothing else, at least be professional.
The writer is the senior analyst, columnist of GEO, The News and Jang.