Write and wrong

Published: May 11, 2014
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Shahid Javed Burki

Shahid Javed Burki

It is easy to talk about media ethics, very difficult to practise them — ever since I have started to lecture in an honorary capacity with the Coalition for Ethical Journalism in Pakistan, this is the standard response I get when interacting with fellow practitioners. I think the only reason many journalists listen to me in the first place is because of my 23-year experience in the field, much of which has been in reporting. I honestly believe that as journalists, we need to strive towards accountability from within. Many disagree.

So when I am given the standard observation of practice versus theory, I have two responses to this. First of all, I start off by saying that a discussion on media ethics allows journalists to know the difference between right and wrong. In my experience, most mistakes made by journalists while reporting on a particular subject come from ignorance and not ill-intent. And second, that there have been instances in the past where journalists got together and came up with a code which they then abided by. It has been done before.

One is reminded of the code agreed upon by news directors some years back over how to cover terror attacks. It had simple things like not going too close to the point of the incident and also be wary of a second bomb blast following the first. Had such a practice been adopted earlier, maybe valuable lives would have been saved as we saw in the case of some incidents in Peshawar and elsewhere. We now have to build on this.

At the Multan Press Club, where I gave a lecture last week on the media landscape as part of the efforts of the CEJ, journalists remained sceptical. They had a point. They asked me how I could  talk of ethics at a time when they had received pamphlets warning them not to write on the issue of the murder of human rights lawyer Rashid Rehman. These pamphlets started appearing soon after Rehman’s murder. It seems that they had been printed in advance.

Rehman was a much loved figure in Multan’s legal and media circles. Many recall how he would travel hundreds of kilometers in his battered jeep to meet up with victims of injustices. Many of the journalists travelled with Rehman. Now they cannot write about him. Imagine their helplessness.

But there is more to this. When I went to condole with the family of Rehman and as we were saying our Fateha, we heard a series of explosions outside. The family, already on edge after the murder of Rehman, took it in their stride. They tried not to panic but the tension was very much there. It later transpired that they were sounds from fireworks.

Professor Tauseef Ahmed Khan who teaches at Federal Urdu University in Karachi and is a family member, was at that point telling me how the deceased had asked for police protection after receiving a series of threats — one of which was given to him in the court in front of a judge. But the government did nothing. Now, as if to make up, there were four policemen sitting on a charpoy on the gate of the simple house located in Tipu Sultan colony, a middle income neighbourhood of Multan.

As I walked out, I saw that the explosions were followed by a band playing loud music. There was a wedding taking place. What was obscene to me was that the family was celebrating in such a manner at a time when the house next door was mourning the death of their bread-winner. And these two have been neighbours for decades. Helplessness is one thing, this is quite something else.

We are all shocked at the murder. More so the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, whose  chairperson, Zohra Yusuf, is devastated. The HRCP has, to date, lost six of its members in similar circumstances. Five of them — Naeem Sabir (2011), Siddique Eido (2011), Zarteef Afridi (2011), Ahmed Jan Baloch (2013) and Rashid Rehman (2014) — were killed in the line of duty. The sixth victim, Malik Jarrar Hussain (2013) was victim of a sectarian killing. No one linked to the murders has been arrested. Where do we go from here?

Published in The Express Tribune, May 12th, 2014.

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Reader Comments (10)

  • Zaid Hamid
    May 11, 2014 - 11:40PM

    @ Mr. Editor,
    Usually I like your articles. And this is a good one too.
    But well.. Here you talk of media ethics…and then sometimes you come up with something like this.
    I don’t know what to say… I understand a while ago due to the attacks on Tribune, you had asked your colleagues to “tone down” stuff.
    Although I realise that one specific article about Modi might have been written to stay on the good side of the Deep State, but well..right from the first para itself, its full of falsified facts. But then, as you rightly said at the start of this article, “It is easy to talk about media ethics, very difficult to practise them” and knowing how difficult it is being a journalist in Pakistan, I sympathise with you.

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  • Parvez
    May 12, 2014 - 12:08AM

    You have ended by asking a very pertinent question. One could shut one’s mouth and sit quiet and wait to be killed because they will invent ways and excuses to do it. Or one can speak out and expose not just those who kill in the name of religion but also those who support and shelter these criminals.
    I never knew who Rashid Rehman was but today in my eyes he’s a hero and the cowards who killed him are not just the scum of the earth…..but enemies to all religions and to the State as well.

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  • May 12, 2014 - 11:30AM

    Dear sir good piece of witting, Rashid is really a great man.

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  • May 12, 2014 - 10:50PM

    The simple way around this is to have an in-house code of ethics that covers basic reporting and editorial issues in their guidelines.

    It is a system known to work.

    In the USA, the New York Times, for example, put in place reporting guidelines on the War on Terror.

    At the height of the Fitzgerald inquiries in Australia, at a time when the scandals of Kerry Packer and the after shocks of the Vietnam war were coming home to roost in the great southern land, papers such as The Courier-Mail, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald established their own in-house codes of ethics, which have served these publications very well, often under difficult circumstances.

    Also, what could help, would be having TV shows such as CNN’s Correspondents or the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s programme, Media Watch.

    These shows are basically about reinforcing the concept of journalistic accountability but they also tell the consumers about how do reporters and journalists go about collecting information and then reporting it.

    Such programmes play a key role in bridging the gap between the journos and the consumers. It educates the former about the circumstances in which journalists work.

    Some things like these would definitely work in Pakistan.

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  • Gp65
    May 13, 2014 - 5:02AM

    What can you say about a country where
    – Najam Sethi, Hasan Nissar, Hamid Mir, Nusrat Javed, Asma Jahangir are accused of being traitors and the Supreme court accepts the case.
    – Qadri is a hero and nt only do lawyers shower rose petals on him but a mosque is built in his name in the nation’s capital with people generously contributing
    – HRCP activists, polio workers, red cross workers are killed and journalists like Raza Runi and Hamid Mir are shot at
    – where Abdus Salaam is ignored.

    Who a country’s heroes are and who are the villains tells a lot about widespread values in that country.

    I am not gloating or gleeful but genuinely worried about the fate that awaits the few sane voices that still speak up.

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  • Gp65
    May 13, 2014 - 5:03AM

    @Parvez:
    And what about those who had heard the threats to Rashid Rehman in an open court and failed to act?

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  • Aania
    May 13, 2014 - 3:34PM

    ET itself censors so much, perhaps media ethics should extend everywhere, not just in opinion articles.

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  • Parvez
    May 13, 2014 - 3:35PM

    Careless et, is that shahid burki in the picture?

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  • Parvez
    May 13, 2014 - 11:44PM

    @Gp65: Yes……and in my comment I have made mention of them when I said ‘ …but also those who support and shelter these criminals ‘.

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  • Gp65
    May 14, 2014 - 2:17AM

    @Parvez:
    I see. So you do not see the failure to act by law and order machinery as well as media as apathy, negligence and incompetence but rather a deliberate attempt to support and shelter? Certainly as someone liing in Pakistan you have a better perspective. I had just put it down o callousness and incompetence for why the judge did not take cognizance of threats in his court, why the police did not take action and why the media did not make a big deal about threats in an open court.

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