Reflections on the ‘Idiot Box’

The five-hour drama enacted in Islamabad at the central Jinnah Avenue neighbourhood à la Sultan Rahi style and the subsequent television coverage once again exposed the core issue of the private television channels. First, the lack of a cogent, workable editorial policy devised by each channel, keeping in mind the Pemra Ordinance and Code of Conduct for media: broadcasters or cable TV operators. Second, it exposed lack of implementation of existing Pemra laws and further, lack of consequences when it is violated. In this particular case, when one Mohammad Sikander armed with sophisticated weapons and accompanied by his wife and two small children decided to place demands on the government by a show of violence.
That it was an act of terrorism; there is no doubt. A man brandishing hi-tech weapons, firing in the air, placing demands on the government and in a position to inflict physical harm upon those around him cannot be taken as a benign individual by any standards, at that point in time, without any inquiry having been taken place about his background. According to a BBC report (published August 16, 2013), many believe that the non-stop television coverage made the police reluctant to step in sooner and take action against the gunman. Coverage of such antics non-stop can be a source of encouragement for other aspirants.
This kind of coverage is in clear violation of Clause (3) of Section (8) of the 2007 Pemra Ordinance (Amendment) that states: “Notwithstanding anything contained in this ordinance, the live coverage of incidents of violence and conflict shall not be broadcast.”
Many more incidents stand witness to our obsessive event coverage. Suicide bombings and its gruesome coverage is one. Showing bits of bodies, ensuing destruction, has made the public immune to such tragedies. For most now, it is just ‘another suicide killing’. Manawan Police Academy attack coverage sticks out like a sore thumb. Gunmen had stormed at a police academy in October 2009. The security personnel trying to gain access to the building, as a rescue operation were underway - all was being shown and widely commented upon by the TV reporters on ground. I am sure the same was being viewed by the terrorists inside too, making it easier for them to decide upon their counter plan. This is just one example out of so many.
The Pemra Ordinance (Amendment) 2007 Clause 2(j)states: “Not broadcast video footage of suicide bombers, terrorists, bodies of victims of terrorism, statements and pronouncements of militants and extremist elements and any other acts, which may, in any way, promote, aid or abet terrorist activities or terrorism.”
There is now consensus that exposure to media violence is linked to actual violent behaviour - a link found by many scholars to be on par with the correlation of exposure to second-hand smoke and the risk of lung cancer (published in The New York Times, August 23, 2013). Criticising is not the purpose. An effort to channelise our media into a more responsible and a more mature direction is. Loopholes need to be plugged. The suggestions that Pemra may like to look into are:
i     Call for comprehensive editorial policies by each media house for submission and approval by Pemra, and ensure these are displayed on channel websites. (The wheel does not have to be recreated - we need to look at the policy, for example, of BBC and others.) This policy must trickledown to the job description of every member of the team. The media policies must take into consideration the Pemra Ordinance 2002 and Amendment 2007.
i     If a media person goes against the guidelines and its channel’s editorial policy; he or she must be banned from joining another media channel in any capacity for minimum three years (that is what we do with our cricketers).
i    There must be an imposition of a hefty fine on the channel itself responsible for gross misconduct in the following of the editorial policy by its employee and in case of an extremely serious nature of violation, a ban on the channel itself for a given time period. The channel will ultimately have to be responsible for any gross contraventions.
i    Guidelines should be given for appointing anchorpersons to avoid unsuitable persons as opinion makers. In case of a ‘fresh entrant’ to the field, a training course must be given to the new appointee.
i    Guidelines for training course of all staff must be given to the electronic media, and checks and balances must be in place to ensure it is duly being carried out. Or should the training institute be under the auspices of Pemra providing training in different fields, i.e. reporting, photography, live coverage, anachronism, etc.
i    ‘Experts’ of different fields must be invited on subject programmes as guests to ensure the emergence of a balanced and well informed public opinion, instead of allowing non-experts who usually do so. Guidelines of experts in a field as opposed to ‘non-experts’ exist internationally and are well defined. Unfortunately, not followed in Pakistan to a large degree and only leads to creation of confusion and formation of an uneducated opinion. An expert in one field may not be an expert in other subjects.
i    It should be made mandatory for the channels to have a legal adviser to whom all materials of sensitive nature must be first cleared with as well as checking it against the channel’s editorial policy, as done by BBC.
i    Content analysis is a very serious duty of Pemra. What is being aired, not only in the news arena, but also in the entertainment and religious field. The impact of psychological warfare cannot be, must not be overlooked. Overdose of Bollywood in entertainment channels, in news needs checking.
These suggestions put on board do not mean to state that private channels have not contributed positively towards bringing home issues that otherwise would never have been brought home, exposed scams we may never have known about and called the proverbial spade a spade. They have on many occasions done so. However, the good, the cultural, the beautiful has all been relegated to the backburner. All that is projected is the bad, the ugly and the destructive. Talk shows talking of doomsday scenario seem to have replaced entertainment and any good thing related to Pakistan.
What we need here is; to strike a balance!

The writer is a lawyer, academic and political analyst. She has authored a book titled A Comparative Analysis of Media & Media Laws in Pakistan.

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