ISLAMABAD // The ethics of Pakistan's vibrant independent news media have been called into question in the aftermath of exhaustive, if not excessive, live TV coverage of Saturday's suicide attack on the Marriott Hotel. The bombing ignited a battle for ratings between the country's six major news networks, which, within minutes, were all beaming graphic live video to millions of viewers glued to their sets.
Behind the scenes, insiders say, under-pressure news managers were making instinctive judgement calls based predominantly on a "gotta-be-first" mantra. On-screen squabbles over whether the deadly explosion had been delivered by car or lorry (as was later established) were followed by a morbid race to update the fatality toll until the ultimate prize - security camera footage of the attack, was claimed. As the news tide ebbed, current affairs anchors set off on a two-day marathon of studio discussions, increasingly repetitive in the absence of fresh information.
The undeniably deep impact on public morale of the competing live broadcasts, a very recent phenomenon in Pakistan, is ringing alarm bells at the highest levels of government. "[Due to] the way the media has conducted itself during the recent crises, it has acquired much greater importance, especially in the times of such catastrophe," Yousaf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, observed at a dinner for journalists on Wednesday.
Mr Gilani, who holds a postgraduate degree in journalism, singled out opinionated studio commentary for criticism, saying some stations had "focused on finding fault with the system instead of [acting as] a facilitator". Coverage by others, he said, was "not realistic, as it exaggerated the overall impact on the economy". Viewed in isolation, the prime minister's criticism could easily be interpreted as an attempt to restrict freedom of the electronic news media. However, his words also reflect a wider debate within the media over what should and should not be aired live in the battle to be first with the news.
That debate has been raging with increasing intensity since private news channels first acquired and deployed mobile satellite-based broadcast units in early 2007. Public consciousness was jolted by the unprecedented flow of violent political imagery, which is widely accredited with turning uncommitted public opinion against Pervez Musharraf when he was president. Among the note broadcasts were the police suppression of lawyer protests in Islamabad in March 2007, as viewed from roof of Geo News TV bureau; the killing of 32 people during government-backed violence against lawyers in Karachi in May 2007, including memorable live broadcast of Aaj TV headquarters under automatic fire; and the bombing of Benazir Bhutto's cavalcade in Karachi upon her return to Pakistan in Oct 2007.
Government attempts in Nov 2007 to impose a ban on live-from-location coverage caused a split among networks between those who believed defiance would earn audience loyalty and others that wanted to stay on air. Initially, cable distributors were ordered by the government to block transmission of defiant networks to subscribers. When those channels, particularly those with studios based overseas refused to heed further warnings, Mr Musharraf used his influence with their host government to shut down their operations.
The repeal of restrictions by the incoming democratic government in March is believed by some media leaders to have fostered a sense of bravado that glossed over a lack of objective coverage. "The media has become used to taking on and defying the government. At times, it is the media's fault that they become outrageous," said Tahir Ikram, who pioneered live-from-location event coverage in 2005 as programming director of CNBC Pakistan.
Beneath the bravado, occasionally voiced on air as lightly disguised threats to "censors" by current affairs show hosts, the news networks' preoccupation with live-from-location transmission often glosses over a lack of editorial planning. The lack of advertising support for daytime transmissions, when audiences are a fraction of the evening prime time, means programming plans are focused on the 7pm-midnight time-band. With repeats, punctuated only by five-minute bulletins, running for the rest of the 24-hour day, there is little motivation for TV news bosses to meticulously plan each day.
"Here, we just go 'live'. The media is so immature and jumps on everything before thinking it through," Mr Ikram said. "Hardly any editorial thinking goes into what is going to air." Many journalists are worried that the emergent "breaking, breaking news" culture, as they condescendingly refer to it, is symptomatic of a deeper ethical malaise affecting their profession. Accredited journalists are the legal beneficiaries of perks such as quotas of discounted residential land, previously the exclusive domain of politicians, civil servants and armed forces personnel.
With little incentive to rock the boat, often unless the commercial imperative of ratings demands it, the quality of journalism has struggled to keep pace with the six-fold jump in broadcast volume in as many years. "I doubt we are raising any political or social awareness among the viewing public, because the quality of news and political discussion is not empowering," one senior Islamabad TV journalist said, speaking anonymously. "We are reinforcing triviality in people's minds."
Neutral players in Pakistan's political dispensation agree on the need for ethical reform, albeit from within the industry. "The media has overall played a positive role ? involving the general public in political events and given voice to ordinary people," said Asma Jehangir, a special rapporteur of the United Nations Human Rights Council. "But we do need oversight to stem the tendency of spreading disinformation or misinformation and prevent calls and incitement to violence," she said.
* The National