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Journalism held hostage

April 06, 2011

IN February, about 50 journalists who report from the tribal conflict zones of Pakistan and Afghanistan met in Kabul. They discussed issues related to war reporting and the need for a cross-border network to help media professionals overcome the growing challenges they are facing.

The speakers complained that combatant forces had weakened journalistic freedom and were using reporters as pawns in the theatre of war. Some reporters admitted to facing an ethical dilemma. Objective coverage, they said, brings threats but partisan journalism wins them the confidence of the warring parties.

Growing anarchy has made access to information dependent on the will of the military and the militants. Both have shown little tolerance in allowing reporters to work independently. In threatening circumstances, journalists feel little hesitation in toeing the line, which has made journalism subservient to military strategies. More importantly, it has provided journalists with an excuse to justify anything in the name of insecurity, making professional dishonesty the norm in war reporting.

Ethically, any defensive measure is justified if it helps reporters keep safe. In the local context, however, this provisional compromise is of little help in ensuring their security. Meanwhile, it has killed in them the spirit of initiative. There is a growing realisation that journalism in a hostile situation is mainly about serving the combatants. This has caused complacency in war reporters. They take pride in their relationship with militants, who often invite them to cover terror at the source.

In the southern parts of Afghanistan, the situation is worse. Reporters-cum-cameramen are taken on embedded missions to shoot events like film directors. For their part, they do not hesitate to guide militants about how to act on camera. Such unethical exercises end in laundering half-truths in the name of journalism.

Reporting from conflict areas becomes coloured with the goals of the warring parties. On embedded tours, journalists report fatalities while tilting towards the accompanying party. Other reporting options such as damage to public property and degeneration of the environment are counted as collateral damage and not worth reporting.

Historian Walter Laqueur once said that the “media is the terrorists’ best friend”. This statement applies perfectly to the border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Offering the hostile-environment theory as an excuse, war reporters have developed inbuilt self-censorship. They follow instructions that are not even issued to them. Resultantly, their reports mainly address the ‘three Ws’: what happened, when and where. The value-added part, which often deals with the most important questions of who did it, why and how, is either missed out or distorted.

Under the circumstances, journalists are left with neither independence nor security. The absence of both has given birth to an attitude that is devoid of the recognition of ethical obligations. They sell terror and poverty in the international market but their reports fall largely in the category of propaganda.

This issue is more delicate in the case of photojournalists. One of them once brought to his newsroom a photo of a small child surrounded by flies and holding a piece of bread. The photojournalist wanted his editor to write a caption about the wretched poverty around Peshawar. “This is the only way to sell it abroad,” he said. Yet, the photo was a reflection of an agrarian culture where children in large families get little attention.

The way out lies in building reporters’ capacity. Roughly, about 80 per cent of the reporters in restive areas need professional education and training to understand their role in a conflict that has caught them unprepared. They need to understand that journalism is less about radical choices and more about alternatives. “While war reporters in Pakistan and Afghanistan have commitment, they mainly lack professionalism to extend the scope of their reporting to areas other than combatants,” said one observer.

In 1979, when the Russian forces attacked Afghanistan, media crews from all over the world rushed to Peshawar and Kabul.

This interaction provided local reporters the opportunity to earn and learn. But the exposure did not expand their mental horizons. They were hired as ‘fixers’. A few were groomed beyond that. A journalist in a fixer’s role has no need for ethical consideration. That is one reason that ethics have never become part of war reporting in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Media organisations, both local and foreign, must also take responsibility. They have a network of reporters serving in dangerous situations. However, the organisations do not recognise that the growing threats to their reporters are partly the outcome of poor professional understanding. They barely invest in building their reporters’ capacities; neither do they provide them with job security or insurance.

Already exposed to a hostile environment, such reporters, fixers and stringers believe that their value lies mainly in sending a fresh piece of news from the battlefield. So they take all sorts of risks to please paymasters who operate from posh offices in Islamabad, Peshawar and Kabul.

Apart from ethical considerations, the current situation has altered the nature of television journalism by turning it into news management. Stories from faraway places travel in a non-professional way, finally reaching the readers. But by then, they have changed several pairs of hands and their context has shifted.

Under the circumstances, war reporting in both countries is becoming less about giving a voice to the voiceless, and more about amplifying the thundering of the perpetrators.

The writer teaches at the University of Peshawar. syedirfanashraf@gmail.com