TV coverage guidelines drawn in Pakistan as violence rises

In November 2009, I received this e-mail message from a few people in Pakistan:


ISLAMABAD—Top news managers from Pakistan’s eight television channels have evolved a first-of-its-kind voluntary framework to standardize professional guidelines governing terrorism coverage. [A PDF of November’s message is 



Since then there hasn’t been much more news about the issue, and I thought that might be a good thing. I’m always wary when I see words like “guidelines” or “rules” or “regulations” for news coverage, terrorism-related or not. But the November announcement seemed to have broad industry support, and the guidelines were being called “voluntary”—always better than having them mandated by the government. 

Given the propensity for the Pakistani government to meddle in news coverage, and new legislation being discussed (but still far from being enacted) that would allow the government to ban live news coverage it deemed terrorist-related and restrict material deemed defamatory to the government or military, industry guidelines might be the best way to head off heavy-handed government interference. 

Soldiers secure the Peshawar Press club after a suicide bombing in December. (Reuters/Fayaz Aziz)
Soldiers secure the Peshawar Press club after a suicide bombing in December. (Reuters/Fayaz Aziz)

Earlier this week I got a message from Zaffar Abbas, the Islamabad editor of Dawn newspaper. He’s also on the editorial board of Dawn TV. We discussed the aftermath of the December 22 Peshawar Press Club bombing—a real turning point in assessing the threat to journalists—and protection for journalists in the field. We also talked about the November guidelines. He had a significant hand in drawing them up, and I asked him for an update.

Below is Abbas’ response:

It’s true “guidelines” and “codes of conduct” are tricky matters, especially in countries like Pakistan where we have a history of government interference with the media.  For this reason, journalists’ groups like the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists and the Council for Pakistan Newspaper Editors have remained reluctant to accept the ideas of a “code of conduct” or a “press council” that have been floated by successive governments.

But what we have written is something quite unique. The government’s main interest, for a while now, had been to introduce what it calls more “sobriety” in the political discussion on television talk shows with the aim of discouraging the anti-government criticism most of them thrive on. The government has shown little or no concern about controlling practices in the rest of the coverage—including what it has called “sensational” ways of covering incidents of violence. For us, the people managing news at private television stations, we were more concerned about the way the extensive 24/7 TV coverage of incidents of terrorism was further traumatizing Pakistani society. Most of us had a growing feeling that the race for better ratings between our 16 news channels was leading to serious ethical and professional problems, but we were not sure how to tackle the issue.

After a multipronged terrorist attack on Army’s headquarters in Rawalpinidi on October 10 last year, which also involved a hostage situation, I took the plunge and wrote a detailed article in my newspaper, Dawn.  The piece highlighted the perils of covering terrorism-related incidents live, and based on my experience working for the BBC for several years, I also offered a few dos and don’ts. Soon after the article appeared, the heads of the news operations at a couple of TV channels took the cue and called a meeting of editors and director news of eight leading TV channels. You have to appreciate that it was quite an event, considering the cutthroat competition that exists among these TV channels. At the next meeting, the remaining eight TV channels joined in.

It took a while, but in the end we agreed on a guideline of sorts. It was largely based on the internationally practiced norms of ethical journalism. The guidelines were purely related to coverage of terrorism or disaster-related maters, including incidents of bomb explosions, hostage, or siege situations, and military operations against so-called Islamic militants or insurgents. There was a conscious decision not to sanitize news coverage but to avoid graphic images of the dead and injured, and to discourage the sort of speculative stuff like unsubstantiated reports of explosions or bomb blasts based on a phone call from a supposed eyewitness, or a bomb threat to a school or hospital. We also considered installing some sort delay mechanism in covering hostage situations. Since then we have not been confronted with a hostage situation, but four of the leading TV channels say they now have a mechanism to generate a 15 to 20 second broadcast delay system. A few others say they are acquiring the systems to do that.

It’s not been perfect, and mistakes are still being made, but coverage of some of the recent incidents of terrorism has shown that there’s been a remarkable improvement in the manner of presenting news. And the messages of appreciation that stations have gotten from their viewers have encouraged the broadcasters to properly implement these guidelines by holding regular training sessions for reporters and camera crews and the staff news room staff managing the coverage.

That problem seems to be on its way to being solved, and now journalists in Pakistan, particularly TV staff, are turning to address their concerns about the safety of their colleagues. Pakistan has already been dubbed one of the most dangerous countries for journalists. [Pakistan ranked 10th on CPJ’s list of journalists killed in 2009.] The December 22 incident of a suicide bombing outside the Peshawar Press Club has made the situation more alarming. There is a feeling among many of us that perhaps Islamic insurgents, or at least some of their factions, have come to regard journalists as an enemy and may target us as a group—something that has made press clubs across Pakistan, particularly those in the North West Frontier Province [near the Afghan border], feel much more vulnerable. Similarly, the issue of personal safety of journalists is also a major concern, especially for those assigned to cover incidents of terrorism or military operations. 

Right now the situation is that most television station owners, though worried about the vulnerability of operating in such dangerous environment, are not prepared to invest in providing what has come to be called “hostile environment training” to their field staff. And many TV and newspaper owners have not provided proper protection gear to journalists who they regularly asked to work in dangerous areas.

So what the editors and news directors of television companies have decided is make use of whatever expertise is locally available, and start a series of training sessions to familiarize journalists with safety techniques, first aid, and to persuade them to avoid going into conflict zones without proper gear. The first of such sessions is likely to take place in Peshawar in February—right now its being organized by the TV news directors in collaboration with Peshawar Press Club [Peshawar is the capital of the North West Frontier Province].

At a later stage, we are hoping to either raise some funds, or seek help from international organizations to at least start a program of “training the trainers” who can train reporters and camera persons in more organizations.