A fine and shifting line for Pakistan’s media

The government of Balochistan, the troubled southwestern province of Pakistan, registered a case against national television news channel ARY on Monday, August 26, after it aired a video clip of the destruction of the residence of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammed Ali Jinnah. The case was filed under Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorist Act of 1997, claiming that airing the footage could incite “violence or […] glorify crime,” in contravention of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA).

Responsibility for the bombing, which stunned the already explosive nation, was claimed by the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), a separatist, militant outfit forged by the criminal neglect and devastating human rights record of the province. To strike at the historic home, where the country’s founder spent the final days of his life after the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, could send no clearer or more symbolic a message to the nation on the disaffected state of Balochistan, where forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings are par for the course.

The video clip “showed that the account [of the bombing] offered by the government was inaccurate,” according to Dawn News, the country’s leading English-language daily, and, incidentally, a newspaper founded by Jinnah in1942. It continued: “The state had initially said that the heritage building had been targeted remotely. The video, however, showed masked men on the premises wreaking havoc even before the flames were lit. It was this last aspect that agitated the Supreme Court when it took suo motu notice on the airing of these clips […].”

Pakistan’s media are nothing if not spirited, and journalists took to the streets in protest the following day in various cities across the country. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists and the Baloch Union of Journalists strongly condemned the move, and Dawn called it an attempt to “muzzle the media.” The same day, members of Pakistan’s opposition parties walked out of the Senate over the issue, according to ARY itself.

It worked: the case was withdrawn two days after it was submitted. Balochistan’s chief minister stated that the report had been lodged “due to some misunderstanding.” Clearly, given the uproar, this was not worth the provincial government’s effort. This is not the first time making a noise has had a charge against the media dropped almost immediately.

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA)  itself came under fire last week in the Supreme Court for the live coverage by local channels of a stand-off  lasting several hours between a gunman and Islamabad police. Police said they were severely hampered by the constant presence of various camera crews who would not leave despite being asked to, and at least two channels went as far as to broadcast a wedding-day photograph of the gunman’s wife, who was with him during the incident. The court will meet again to settle the matter on September 5th.

Did the media behave irresponsibly during the Islamabad incident? The disgusted op-eds in the newspapers in the days following the encounter said yes. Certainly, the media’s role is to inform, not disrupt. Yet gagging the media will neither achieve the former nor prevent the latter – only instilling proper professional and ethical standards in newsrooms can do that.

How do you cover rampant terrorism responsibly? Pakistan’s journalists toe a fine and shifting line. Decisions have to be made daily between sparing sensibilities and keeping the public informed of the terrifying specter of terrorism, all the while working in one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. It’s a steep learning curve.