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Setting the limits.

Byline: Javed Ansari

Could things be worse than this? Could one ever imagine that the country would flounder around in a rudderless fashion, that it would be ruled by a directionless political disposition that has no vision about where they want Pakistan to go and no clue about how to address the countless problems that the nation faces?

Individuals suffer from nervous breakdowns but it is rare that a whole nation works itself into a condition that can be described as nothing else but a mass nervous breakdown. Free media has a responsibility to benefit society, help remove cobwebs of confusion and contradiction and create positive attitudes and mindsets. To the contrary, media in Pakistan, which couldn't have been freer, always seems to be on the lookout for opportunities to whip up public frenzy to the highest level for their own narrow interests.

It is really regrettable that many elements in the Pakistani media setup, particularly its television side, are simply spinning out of control. It appears that self-restraint in the choice of content has been thrown out of the window by certain segments in the news industry, either by design or in ignorance, and there seems to be no authority or power in sight that can pin them down or enforce accountability.

Perhaps these are the fruits of a democratic polity; the only problem is that certain media players are taking it a bit too far. They have no self-controlling compulsions, for instance, that would stop them from drawing a line in terms of TV coverage when the PNS Mehran is attacked. While Pakistan Navy commandos struggle inside the air base to flush out the attackers, a whole array of TV camera crew and reporters line the outside perimeters of the base and relay footage that may have actually assisted the external handlers of the attack.

In those critical hours there was certainly room for a judgment call on part of the producers and channel managements at the studio end to restrict TV coverage in a manner that it wouldn't compromise the operation that was underway inside the base. What was even more shocking were the complaints that were heard from certain anchorpersons as to why were the naval officials not keeping the public informed about what was going on inside?

Some years back, leading news channels in Pakistan had agreed on a code of conduct for TV coverage of terrorist incidents and it was settled that footage of dead bodies and wounded persons would not be shown onscreen. It was also decided that camera crews would be trained in the coverage of terrorism-related incidents. It is regrettable then that no self-restraint was exercised, at least in the initial hours, of live coverage of the PNS Mehran operation.

In the same context, while it was fortunate that visual clips somehow became available both of the Kharotabad killings near Quetta and the cold-blooded murder of an unarmed youth by the Rangers in Karachi, TV channels did not exercise restraint in running these clips and chose to broadcast the emotive content ad nauseam. There is no question that both incidents were extremely contemptible and deserved to be slammed down in the most uncertain terms but it was also important that the video clips should have been run with greater discretion.

The defenceless men and women, said to be Tajiks, shown being riddled with a battery of automatic fire from the brave Frontier Constabulary officers and men and the critically wounded Karachi youth lying in a pool of blood, having been shot point blank by the valiant Rangers, makes for incredible news footage. The cameramen who had the presence of mind to shoot these videos must be commended for their courage. The fact that the individuals in both instances were receiving life threats from vested interests deserved condemnation and they needed to be provided appropriate protection. This doesn't mean, however, that the TV channels having access to the footage also had the licence to run it non-stop. In such circumstances, their first responsibility should have been to work towards diffusing the misery and hopelessness of the people and not adding to the seething mass anger that was already simmering under the surface.

Therefore, it is all the more important that the noteworthy initiative that some news channels had taken earlier in mutually agreeing to a code of conduct to govern the nature and content of broadcast footage be revisited. Definite steps must now be taken to bring the entire fraternity under the umbrella of the code. And if the channels are wary of PEMRA or the government throwing a spanner in the works, then it is their own collective responsibility to enforce the code of conduct in greater public interest.F

Javed Ansari is Vice President and COO of CMC (Pvt.) Ltd., the image marketing company, and a veteran journalist and advertising professional.
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Geographic Code:9PAKI
Date:Jul 31, 2011
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