Sunday, September 19, 2010

Reporting conflict: media’s primal urge

Reporting conflict: media’s primal urge

Pakistan’s hormonally-driven youthful and real time-pressured media is struggling to control its primal urges to over-simplify, over-exaggerate, under-analyze and under-contextualize everything

The media in Pakistan over the past few years has undergone the first generation of reforms entailing (i) a manifold increase in size and space (from one TV channel in 2002 to about 90 now, including about 30 current affairs channels of which half are astonishingly in languages other than Urdu or English and from one radio station to over 130 now); (ii) a massive increase in numbers of practitioners (from about 2,000 journalists in 2002 to over 10,000 now, according to the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists); and (iii) an increase in pluralisms (channels and stations focused on regions, languages, themes and communities, etc).

That’s the good news. The bad news is that in the same period while quantity of information has increased, the quality of information has deteriorated. The principle reason for tabloidization of media in Pakistan is simple, even if dismaying: the average age of a journalist has fallen from a mature 47 in 2002 to in impulsive 23 now, according to PFUJ. This is too young an age to have a grasp of issues, to develop an appropriate articulation of concepts and to offer clarity of vision and insight when reporting about cataclysmic dynamics such as terrorism, extremism, intolerance and the hypnotic unraveling of a state fuelled by a variety of conflicts.

Pakistan’s hormonally-driven youthful and real time-pressured media is struggling to control its primal urges to over-simplify, over-exaggerate, under-analyze and under-contextualize everything. Nothing demonstrates this state of affairs than the capacity and experience of the media in recent years in reporting the myriad conflicts – social (urban vs rural), cultural (liberal vs conservative), sectarian (both inter- and intra-sect), ideological (religious vs secular), economic (the filthy rich vs the filthy poor), nationalistic (ethnic vs linguist) and the ownership of the state (people vs establishment) – that are tearing Pakistan apart.

Media and conflict grow together

While most of these conflicts have their roots in the past that goes back to the bloodied birth of the state in 1947 that got truncated in 1971, the fault lines seem to have come into relief in the last decade that (for reasons both internal and external to Pakistan) seem to – for better or for worse – have coincided with the media and information revolution. The new media of the new millennium has had to have a baptism by fire in reporting the state finally starting to fight its Frankenstenian demons (the Establishment-nurtured proxies) in the public.

With the Establishment bitten by in-house proxies (remember General Mehmood of ISI defying General Musharraf of the army when the latter decided to put its lot with the United States post-9/11?) and external proxies (remember a pliant judiciary and a supportive media until 2007?), the “independent” media had to grow up quickly and take sides. Unwittingly it became a party to nearly every state- or non-state actor that appeared to take on a regime that had become unpopular. In the Lal Masjid (Islamabad Red Mosque) case, the media openly sided with the militants that had brazenly taken on the state. In the battle of wits between the judiciary and the government, the media plumped for the former. In the deadly war against the state by the Taliban and their allies, the media merely reported the seemingly never-ending suicide bombings and beheadings in 2006 and 2007 and patently failed to condemn them. It was not until the amateur video of a girl being flogged in public came along (not produced by the media, mind you) that the tide turned. In short, the media allowed itself to become part of the story.

As the attacks on civilian and military targets grew in numbers and brazenness – and casualties mounted – more current affairs TV channels in the private sector came online in Pakistan to coincide with this period and hence the coverage of ongoing terrorism has grown phenomenally to keep pace with the attacks. More information in more languages – all in real-time – is being generated, processed and consumed in Pakistan now than ever in the country’s history. It’s almost if the virtual information darkness of the first 55 years of the country is now being avenged by a people whose hunger for information can’t be easily satiated. Pakistan’s is the curious case of a country whose prime time comprises, instead of entertainment to soften the sharp edges of their weary days, of talk shows that focus on hard politics. Virtually all of the dozens of current affairs channels are running 7pm-9pm talk shows, 9pm-10pm news and more discussion shows during 10pm-11pm; all this on top of on-the-hour news throughout the day!

Conflicts as ‘media events’

Consider the impact of ongoing terrorist acts in the backdrop of an information-crazy media and information-crazy people. As soon as there is even a rumor of an attack (and there have been over 2,000 in the decade), it is presented as “breaking news”. It is routine for channels to run tickers or even interrupt normal programming to announce that an explosion has been heard in city “X” and efforts are afoot to locate the site of the blast and the cause of it! And before you can say “suicide attack”, the reporters converge on the scene and start transmitting amateur footage with the watermark of it being exclusive. How can a public event being covered by dozens of channels be exclusive is a mystery.

Considering this predictable primal response mechanism of the media to report militancy, the Pakistani media even became – for a long while – a tool in the hands of the militants. The militant groups between 2007 and 2009 in particular were brazenly staging “media events” – attacks designed to happen in a way that ensures: (1) media coverage that is almost immediate – hence attacks usually happen in vicinities of media infrastructure concentration such as large cities like Peshawar/outskirts, Lahore, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Quetta, etc, and (2) media coverage that is ongoing and stretched over several hours – hence most attacks taking place around morning, noon and evening rush hours that can both claim big casualties and cause panic for a populace desperate to know the whereabouts of their family members, or like the serial blasts of Lahore recently aimed at forcing media to run all over the place in a short time in panic and to spread and translate that media panic on the screen and so easily terrorize millions of people.

Clearly unthinking live coverage of the wave of terror sweeping Pakistan – even the biblical floods have not stemmed the tide of terrorism – and related general extremist interpretations and opinions on a media that is reaching millions of homes in real time contributes to a more fearful and uncertain milieu that is having an impact that is disproportion to the size of the triggers, however reprehensible the terror attacks and their attendant casualties. An attack that kills 50 persons immediately terrorizes 50 million, who in turn filter that fear and panic down to another 50 million.

Sinned against as well as sinning

While the media may have its faults – its young, untrained and non-expert journalists – it has had to force-grow in a dreadful atmosphere. Pakistan is probably even more dangerous than Afghanistan and Iraq put together when it comes to practicing journalism. Of the 250-odd journalists from the tribal areas, about two-thirds have in the last two years had to migrate to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after facing all manner of threats, including murder, injury and other forms of intimidation. According to Intermedia, a Pakistani media development organization that monitors violations and abuses against the media, since January 2008 a total of 34 journalists have been killed in the country, 62 have been arrested or abducted, 190 assaulted or injured and 220 have been intimidated by formal threats.

Perpetrators of all this violence have included outlawed militant groups, government functionaries, particularly security forces, and even religious and political parties. Coming in the backdrop of journalists struggling with low wages and lack of safety training and resources, the frequent threats and violence – with no prospects of protection offered by employers – the journalists are getting a raw deal for performing a job that should be (but is not, adequately) acknowledged and prized. With grossly inadequate institutional Considering the range of threats arrayed against them, journalists are cautious not to grossly offend either the outlawed militants or the security agencies. and professional support, these journalists despite their attempts to feed local communities hungry for independent and reliable information, are forced to compromise and reluctantly exercise self-censorship in these tense environments. Because of low wages, most work for more than one media organization.

Security is just one aspect of the challenge of reporting conflict in Pakistan. The media has failed to ask for access to large swathes of the country such as the tribal areas. The conduct and outcome of the ongoing war in tribal areas (and the one in northern parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa last year) has affected and continues to affect every citizen of Pakistan and each one of them has a right to know how it is going. The risks to journalists in the restive regions notwithstanding, the current lack of access to tribal areas in particular is unsatisfactory. The security agencies have drastically restricted the media's access? Not allowing free coverage of a situation that affects everyone in the country violates the emphasis of transparency. Merely allowing ‘embedded journalism’ and controlled access to an area just to confirm 'military victories' is not enough. Facilitation to media should not just translate into helicoptered visits for journalists from Islamabad and Peshawar who are not allowed to move about freely in the areas taken to.

More opinion than fact

Then there was the media’s coverage of the humanitarian conflict before the floods. Extensive coverage of IDPs’ woes displaced by the fighting in the tribal areas and the residual displacement caused by the Swat fighting in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa dominated everything else. There was little analysis of the link between the military action against the militants and the ensuing displacement. Apart from the opinion shows that are a dime a dozen and peddle more conspiracy theories than probably there are Taliban and Al Qaeda men, there was little investigative reporting on the military operational strategy that could have been smarter (or whether the government planned it) or of the government’s foresight in anticipating the outrageously huge displacement and, therefore, a plan to limit its fallout. In the race to get as my IDPs to complain about their travails on TV, radio and print, the media was dangerously amiss in asking crucial questions. It is also telling that the Swat valley, where the battle was centered, quickly emptied of journalists. The people only had the military or the Taliban’s word for how things were faring. Predictably, neither talked about a setback.

Is there a link between an information overload on just once aspect of the crisis (IDPs woes and breathtakingly sad visuals on never-ending tents in refugee camps, first caused by the fighting and now by the floods) and the creeping compassion fatigue that can be measured by the trickle of money that people are raising for the affectees? It’s hard to tell without a proper survey but it does seem like that the coverage of the 2005 earthquake, for instance, triggered an amazingly long-sustaining donation drive by the public. This has been missing for the 2009 conflict-displaced persons and the 2010 natural disaster-displaced persons. The reason is the failure of the media to link the conflicts with their causes properly. There has been more opinion, less fact.

Media in Pakistan today: promises and pitfalls


Increased media space – 90 private TV channels, 130 FM stations; Enhanced citizen interest – viewership, listenership increasing as well as interaction; Heightened political engagement – citizens participating on issues (terrorism, elections, judiciary, economy, etc); Greater awareness of central issues (role of military, politics of coalitions, foreign and domestic policies); and Vibrant development sector and higher public profile for civil society sector.


Media expansion too rapid – professionalism, standardization, audience profiling is lacking; Media content – there are problems of relevance and quality; Over-focus on political wheeling dealing leading to ‘politics fatigue’; Fiercer intra-media competition leading to sensationalism as a ‘ratings’ solution; Citizen perspectives on issues missing; No community media, especially radio.


Media pluralism – TV (national, regional and foreign), radio (potential of 650 FM stations in the country, according to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, print (6m newspaper circulation – only 30m readers in a country of 180m); Internet (25m users, falling prices, faster speeds); Mobiles (nearly 100m users and growing); Media going local – TV, radio in local languages and therefore focusing on local issues: this can help evolve local consensus and local solutions on local conflicts.


Non-institutionalization of public-interest information (culture of secrecy within government offices continues); No institutionalization (so we end up with talk shows as a substitute for information-based programming, case studies and human interest stories that humanize issues; Issues will remain abstract / philosophical and not citizen-centric; Non-citizen stakeholders, not citizen groups keep largely dictating news agenda.

Adnan Rehmat is a media development specialist and political analyst based in Islamabad, Pakistan. He has been associated with the Pakistani media sector since 1990. For the last few years he has been associated with efforts on development strategies for the Pakistani media including radio, TV and print, as the country’s media transitioned from a heavily state-controlled sector to one of pluralisms and independence. He has been involved in advocacy and lobbying on media development issues including improving access to information, promoting a citizen-centric media, media legal reforms, raising the profile of women in media, building news and information capacities of the broadcast sector, and research and analysis on media issues, among others. He can be reached at

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