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Aidan White


Published: 17 May 2012

Region: Pakistan

By Aidan White

Pakistan journalists and media leaders have launched a new campaign to improve ethical standards that will include actions to prevent journalism being used to foment sectarian hatred.


The Pakistan Coalition for Ethical Journalism, which was launched in Islamabad on May 11, aims to restore confidence in media at a time of growing public concern over an overheated culture of news gathering and falling editorial standards.


Critics say ferocious competition, particularly among television networks, is to blame for shocking breaches of ethical journalism in recent months.

Television coverage of last month’s air disaster near the capital Islamabad, for instance, included graphic live footage of human body parts as reporters picked their way through the debris at the crash site where 127 people lost their lives. The incident led to condemnation of 17 television news networks by Pakistan’s state regulator.

The battle for ratings has also led to a proliferation of populist programmes including lurid re-enactments of crimes currently under investigation and so-called "vigilante television."

Journalists are also accused of playing fast and loose with ethical principles in their coverage of politics and religion.

Media were last year blamed for glorifying the killer of Punjab governor Salman Taseer, a senior member of the ruling Pakistan People's Party, who criticised Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws and who had spoken out in defence of a Christian woman sentenced to death.

Three years ago the Asia Human Rights Commission reported that two prominent members of the Ahmadi religious sect were murdered almost immediately following a television programme in which people were urged to kill Ahmadis.

Such incidents have had an inevitable impact on public confidence as revealed by a recent online survey reported by the Express-Tribune which condemned media as negative, partisan and insensitive.

It is a verdict which frustrates many journalists and media who strive to do good work as they take advantage of the professional opportunities that have come with the opening of the media market over the last decade.

But some observers fear that a critical point is being reached where the crisis over media standards may lead to more governmental pressure and demands for media to put their house in order or face tighter legal controls.

Although some media have adopted codes, editorial guidelines and internal policies to reinforce standards leading journalists and media campaigners meeting in Karachi earlier this year agreed that more needs to be done and they put in train plans to launch the new Coalition.

Among them was Badar Alam, Editor of the monthly news magazine The Herald, which this month has included a series of articles on the growing crisis of violent sectarianism across Pakistan, which has claimed the lives of scores of people over the past year.

These reports underscore why more ethical journalism is urgently needed in Pakistan, a country where religious, ethnic, and political rivalries have created “a sectarian tinderbox,” and where media must be sensitive to all sides to avoid adding to tensions which can ignite more violent confrontation between warring communities.

The new Coalition will urge media to be transparent, inclusive and accountable. It will encourage journalists to tell their stories with integrity and style; communicating essential facts and always balancing the need for humanity and tolerance.

And it is ambitious. Not least in its aim to bring competing editors and media owners together, and to encourage an open and honest debate within journalism about standards. However, if it can encourage more inclusive journalism and help media to limit the newsroom culture of sensationalism – particularly the mindset of “breaking news” – it may slow the erosion of editorial quality and rekindle public trust.

The Coalition web-site has made a start by highlighting examples of good practice both at home and abroad. It is also promoting the Media Diversity Institute’s recent report on Reporting Ethnicity and Religion, which was launched on May 3 at a World Press Freedom Day event in Brussels.


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