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Cost of self-censorship

December 19, 2011

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JOURNALISTS in Pakistan are familiar with 'pre-censorship'. However, few focus on self-censorship and the harm that does to the ideal of the public's right to know.

This has become more of a problem in the post 9/11 situation, which has led to war-like conditions in Pakistan. Reporters working in the region along the Pak-Afghan border sometimes either kill sensitive information, or twist it.

These practices are, of course, a direct outcome of rigid information regimes experienced in the past, which have affected several generations of journalists and led them to believe that their work must support the country's 'security interests'.

Whatever this may mean, at the back of many journalists' minds is the idea that the official version must prevail over the rest of the story. In the words of one journalist, “reporters believe that any sensitive news related to the war on terror is a national secret, so journalists are required to ensure official approval by painting over the rest of the facts”.

Thus, they do not act as independent reporters and wait instead for the official nod or press release to baptise available information. And the official account included, whether verbal or non-verbal, is usually so compelling that it overshadows the rest of the story.

While the fear factor does much damage too, in some cases conversely there is a discernible overconfidence among underpaid and under-trained reporters working in conflict areas, so that they fail to realistically measure the negative consequences of their reports.

Few in Pakistan, though, are that determined. Mostly, they toe the line — whether willingly or unwillingly. In the words of journalist Riffat Orakzai, “we have lost war reporting to various stakeholders, who know how to threaten some of us and compel the rest”.

This sort of self-censorship was discernible at a recent gathering at a press club in Chitral. A group of 13 journalists deliberated whether to report on heavy military deployment in the area along the Pak-Afghan border.

Some discussed the possibility of a backlash, particularly if the news did not go down well with the military. Others thought along patriotic lines: information should not be leaked through them to the Taliban or other militants.

Such considerations led to a unanimous decision to kill the story. Justifying this, a senior local journalist commented: “People want to know why their areas are becoming littered with military boots and how much freedom they are going to lose in the days to come. But breaking this story may help the Taliban become aware of the military's movement.”

Attachment to one side or the other has always, the world over, played a role in tempting journalists into being partisan. Yet such a subjective approach has never been held to meet the standards of quality journalism.

The dominant section of the journalistic fraternity has proudly raised slogans such as 'we believe in no “ism” but journalism', but in the post-9/11 world this is just not true anymore. The thin line that separates the myth of objectivity from subjectivity has been blurred. The globalisation of terror has turned traditions of neutrality upside down and ended idealism in war reporting.

In the context of Pakistan, the entire framework of the journalistic profession is undergoing conceptual changes, and reporters in troubled areas cannot bring about any vital change.

Nevertheless, many journalists want the debate to continue, not because their lives are at risk, or because the security forces have taken over conflict reporting, but because the issue is much bigger.

After 9/11, the ragtag band of Al Qaeda operatives escaping the US blitz on the Tora Bora mountains took refuge in Pakistan's tribal belt. Had reporters not indulged in self-censorship, their work may have helped the international community nip the evil in the bud.

Networking by Al Qaeda operatives went underreported mainly because, to quote BBC reporter Dilawar Wazir, who is from Waziristan: “Senior journalists in Waziristan thought that reports about jihadis would invite the wrath of the global community, which would ultimately lead to the destabilisation of their area.”

In Kurram Agency, where sectarian tension has permeated every walk of life, this concept has taken another form. Occasionally, at the press club level, journalists decide what ought to go to the presses and what not; it is believed that journalism cannot help in conflict mitigation, but that it usually complicates sensitivities between the Shia and Sunni.

This consensual blockage of information has assumed the shape of a tradition under which journalists censor themselves on the assumption that this is in the larger interest of their communities.

Such practices have turned journalists into something of a moral brigade which interprets the world to the public, and their public to the world, in a tainted manner.

Many journalists believe, however, that reporters in conflict zones must not alone shoulder the blame for imbalanced or biased reporting. They argue that their bosses in Karachi or Islamabad are equally culpable for having turned journalism into a largely urban profession.

These employers do not invest in the capacity-building of marginalised reporters, neither do they provide them with protection where needed.

In a similar vein, less time for more complicated issues leads to a lack of attention towards the bruised public caught in conflict zones.

Pakistani and Nato security forces have been carrying out huge operations targeting Al Qaeda/Taliban networks in their terrain, but local journalists and the urbanised media houses to which they are attached have yet to make global news outlets aware of the death and destruction that has become routine.

Unfortunately, the lack of focus on the citizenry's issues is a trend in Pakistan's troubled areas. There is no justification for this, particularly since it de-links information from its proper context. Journalists, and journalism, cannot continue to tamper with reality.

The writer teaches at Peshawar University.

syedirfanashraf@gmail.com