Pakistan renews effort to restrict coverage of extremists

It’s not the first time the Pakistani government has tried to restrict broadcast coverage of extremist activities—and it probably won’t be the last. On Monday, a legislative committee forwarded a bill to the National Assembly that would restrict coverage “of suicide bombers, terrorists, bodies of victims of terrorism, statements and pronouncements of militants and extremist elements and other acts which, may, in any way, promote, aid or abet terrorists or terrorism.” 

The government proposed the same sort of measure in January of this year and in November 2009, but it was headed off by the broadcast industry. Eight broadcasters came up with voluntary guidelines to address the perceived problems the government wants to regulate. Zaffar Abbas, a leading Pakistani newspaper editor, told us in January that he and his colleagues had misgivings about industry guidelines, but believed they had drafted a document that both preserved independence and promoted professionalism. Here’s part of what he had to say:

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. …

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 matters, 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.

When last we spoke, Zaffar said that the guidelines seem to be working and that government regulation was unnecessary. With its industry-led solution, Pakistan has followed the path of several democracies that recognize the importance of live TV coverage but accept that electronic media should weigh their responsibilities.

Let’s hope this latest effort by the government goes the way of other recent attempts. And let’s the media decide what their viewers should see, not the authorities.