The post-9/11 scenario saw more and more journalists being attracted towards ‘conflict reporting’. The terms suicide attack, VBIED, IED, suicide jacket, extortion, ransom, martyrs, death squad, mastermind, operations, explosive, assassination, assault, target killing, terrorism and counterterrorism are some of the terms that came into vogue during this period. The repetitive usage of such terms by conflict reporters has multiplied the anxiety of the audience. The Pakistani media seems trapped in the vicious circle of conflict. Sometimes, while watching video clips of talk shows one feels as if the media itself has become a party to the conflict. In such a context, it sometimes seems that perhaps ‘peace’ may not be on the media’s agenda. To nullify this impression I believe that ‘peace reporting’ has to be a priority for our media.
Conflict attracts instant global attention. Over the years, the Pakistani audience has consumed unbearably hard news. This consumption has traumatised the audience and has led everyone to evaluate every issue in the prism of conflict. Being a fertile source of news, ‘conflict’ easily attracts the attention of journalists. Despite hazards attached with conflict reporting, journalists risk their lives in order to cover conflicts. Often untrained novice journalists, not well-versed with the sensitivities of conflict reporting, may become enamoured by the idea of doing an exciting job, pretending to be in the middle of an action movie. This might lead to the failure to maintain balance between their right to life and access to information.
While filing news stories, emotive words like ‘genocide’, ‘tragedy’, ‘assassination’ and ‘massacre’ are used unconsciously. More heed needs to be paid towards this aspect along with making effort to avoiding the use of demonising adjectives like ‘vicious’, ‘cruel’, ‘brutal’ and ‘barbaric’.
Johan Galtung coined the term ‘Peace Journalism’ in the 1970s. Peace journalism advocates peace and hence amplifies the dividends of peace. It focuses on analysing conflict situations. It is also sometimes described as ‘solutions journalism’ or ‘constructive journalism’. The proponents of peace journalism argue that peace journalists should be part of the solution to the problem at hand instead of being part of the problem. Hence, such journalists should not only be seen as reporters but also as peacemakers.
Peace journalists look into issues like the cost of conflicts, as well as their physical and psychological consequences. Theoretically, journalists are supposed to be against war, but in reality, during conflicts, they may be pushed into taking sides. Those who opt to be idealists in such a scenario often face violent consequences. Ideally, peace journalists should be striving to highlight the sufferings of the communities caught in conflict, as well as the grievances of the perpetrators.
The long spell of conflict in Afghanistan attracted many Pakistani journalists to switch over to conflict reporting. There have been instances when conflict reporters seem to have inflicted more harm than the actual consequences of physical forms of terrorism. Unconsciously, they have safeguarded the interests of extremist forces. Primarily journalists from the tribal areas covered the conflict during the Afghan war as well as in the post-9/11 scenario. There were many who lacked professional capacity and so remained confined to transmitting information to those who knew the art of information processing and news-making. The majority of conflict reporters from Fata basically underwent on-the-job training.
Pakistani universities are yet to impart knowledge and skills regarding conflict reporting and peace journalism in an effective manner. Over the years, journalists have lost lives, have been kidnapped or have faced assaults, but there has never been any systematic effort, either on the part of the academia or law-enforcement agencies to carry out assessments and determine the mistakes that journalists may have committed. This task was primarily left to international NGOs working for freedom of press. Our universities and media groups should make efforts towards developing ‘peace journalists’: those who report on conflicts in a manner that educates the audience regarding the importance of peace. Further, there is a dire need to tailor a code of ethics and security protocols that must be observed by conflict reporters.
Owing to certain reasons, conflict reporters are often sandwiched between state and non-state actors. It is important for journalists to understand the meaning of national interest, as well as the motives of extremists. The media should realise that states cannot afford to give unbridled freedom. Sometimes conflict reporters unintentionally exceed their journalistic limits and end up intruding into the orbit of national security. To ensure clarity, the state should develop a communication strategy with input from the media and candidly share the meanings and limitations of national security.
A professional conflict reporter knows the value of symbolic language and the precautions that should be adopted while dealing with non-state actors. Journalists should desist from giving the impression that they are siding with one particular extremist group or the other. This is one flaw where reporters end up presenting an affair as a conflict between two parties and hence fail to identify the hidden players. There is no doubt that it is important to cover news-worthy events, however, the demands of objectivity should not be compromised in this endeavour. In developed democracies, media often opts for self-regulation but even this requires a soft and effective regulatory role by the state.
Peace journalism uncovers the gloomy side of the picture and explains all angles of a story. Its main aim is to promote peace, hence editors and reporters must always opt for a balanced approach. However, attainment of the ideals of peace journalism requires an effective gate-keeping function, especially when it comes to the live coverage of terror attacks. This aspect is often compromised.
In our context, the media primarily informs us about ‘what happened’ but fails to educate the audience about ‘who’ was responsible? Why something happened? Where the terrorists were trained? Where did they hunt for ‘talent’? How the common folk can contribute towards peace-making? We shielded the world at the cost of 60,000 innocent souls, but our media failed to apprise the global community regarding the price we paid for global peace.
Our media needs to correct the prevailing negative perception that hard news or negativity alone helps to multiply its ratings. It should realise that it may end up earning more dividends from peace journalism than all the time it spends shuttling between the boundaries of conflicts.