Present events, in particular mishaps, usually spring from the negligence of the past. On August 15, one man, who eventually proved to be a mentally challenged individual, kept dozens of sane media personnel occupied in an exercise that at best was futile and at worst was dangerous and full of potential hazard. As TV screens started flashing the story of a man called Sikander, threatening the peace of our capital, millions of viewers in Pakistan and even across the border started questioning the ethics of reporting and journalism in Pakistan. And this question made me reflect upon an incident that happened about five years ago.
It was a humid day in February 2007. I was covering the elections in Karachi in an area, which was part of the now infamous constituency of NA 250. These were the early days of my professional life. The editor had sent me to relatively secure polling booths. Suddenly, we got instructions from our news desk to reach a nearby area where reports of firings had been received. Packed in a small car, the team comprising two cameramen, myself and the car driver, we reached the spot. As we turned at the front edge of a bridge, we saw two armed men on a motorbike coming towards us firing openly. The car driver stopped with a loud thud. My first instinct was to duck as our driver put his foot forcefully on the breaks. The two armed men heard the screech and started moving towards us. A cold shiver travelled up my spine, as I realised potential danger in being exposed to shooters. "Media", one of the cameramen with us shouted, the driver was about to take the car in reverse when suddenly the side door opened and one "brave" cameraman jumped out holding his camera the way Rambo would hold a machine gun.
As I looked in sheer incredulity, our cameraman ran towards the shooters all the while filming them. As I cursed him for his inanity under my breath, I heard a loud applause coming from the people sitting next to me. The two men rushed by us firing in the air as our cameraman stood exposed filming them, standing without a helmet or bulletproof vest.
The motorbike rushed passed him and then the car. A few moments of silence passed and then the cameraman rushed back to the car like a conqueror, huffing and puffing with excitement. "I got it, I got the footage," he said. I looked at him in amazement, was he expecting to be praised? It transpired that he was. As I tried explaining to him about the ethics of reporting in conflict zones, he started laughing. The others also joined him. They said politely, I was too young and naive to understand the "right way of reporting in Pakistan." Probably, they were right!
For what I witnessed later was extreme applause from everyone for the cameraman from reporters to the senior management. The learning came for me pretty early. When it comes to health and safety, Pakistan stands at a dismally low level of awareness and media, in this regard, is no exception.
As a result of this negligence, we see scarcely proper gadget, vocabulary or even style of reporting. Talk shows, to a large extent, are driven by rating; some channels even rate guests encouraging people to be invited not according to their calibre, but the number of hits they get on the rating meter.
What is the right way of reporting and covering events, which have a potential of putting lives at risk or even questioning our national security? Once again, this question is reverberating in our corridors and if we do not address it, we will lead our nation into a possible collective disaster.
The painful reality remains that despite having hundreds of talk shows and newspaper editorials on media ethics, we stand today as a nation that has news media as one of the most fast-growing industry, yet that invests very little time and resource in training and educating its staff.
Gone, it seems, are the days of accurate, in-depth and safe reporting. Today, in the rating dictated environment, most news organisations, instead of playing the role of an ombudsman, are pushing their reporters and anchors into producing sensation-based, drama-laden and emotion-packed reports and shows. The criteria has been carved in such a cruel manner that rhetoric has become better than discussion, fiery fights more sought than a healthy debate and loud mouths considered better than big brains. The breaking story phenomenon is a huge monster driving channels almost to a level of comic competition. We repeatedly watch a “breaking story” being shown on all channels with all of them claiming it to be their "exclusive" story and no one would dare to question the logic or ethic behind that. A natural question would be how the same story with more or less the same footage runs exclusively in Pakistan on at least 10 channels at a time.
The episode of Sikander once again became a grim reminder of the starkly naked situation our news media is facing. For hours Pakistani media, showed a man holding two guns with running commentary and long debates making it into a circus of unprecedented nature. It was repeatedly commented upon by analysts how one man succeeded in exposing the inefficiency of Islamabad police. But Sikander on that fateful day did more than just exposed the security plan of Islamabad, he exposed Pakistani media's infantile behaviour as well.
We saw a large number of reporters gathered around an armed man with no protection. The public too could be seen in the background. While the Interior Minister said the man did not pose an immediate danger, the blatant truth is that an armed man with a twisted mind could always turn into tragedy.
In the bizarre developments of the day, we heard interesting analyses. To make matters worse, he was constantly being interviewed by newscasters of different TV channels giving him an open platform to mislead people. If it is media's duty to inform people of potential hazards and cooperate with the authorities, then this duty, in this particular episode, was ignored.
In Hans Christian's famous tale “The emperor's new clothes”, no one had the courage to tell the king that he was not dressed. It took courage of one boy, who just made a simple but true observation: "Oh, but the emperor's naked." It is, perhaps, time someone gets up and points at the naked emperors of the media world too.
The writer is the host of Eight PM with Fe’reeha Idrees on Waqt News.