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Sensitivity can also sell

October 13, 2009


Did you see the confirmation video of Baitullah Mehsud's death? Or how skillfully the gang leader Rehman Dakait was deposed? Or perhaps you’ve caught a glimpse of the latest footage of militants successfully executing civilians, which, unfortunately, has become an almost daily occurrence in some parts of the country?

No matter how gruesome the event, chances are it was broadcast by a private television channel and beamed right into your home. It seems being the frontline ally in the war against terror has numbed our sensitivities. And the ongoing quest for the highest ratings among the broadcast media is adding wind to the sails of insensitivity.

Death is a somber occurrence in the event of which, under the laws of civilization and basic ethics, privacy needs to be accorded where it’s duly required.

Living in Pakistan, you realise how worthless the loss of human life is and how easily people get away with murder. Now that sense of worthlessness is being compounded in the name of free media.

Newly found liberated broadcast outlets make it a point to enforce the carnage that permeates in Pakistan’s social fabric upon the eyes and ears of increasingly desensitised viewers. In recent months, the glorified images of ‘brutal’ militants or the triumphant gains of our ‘valiant’ soldiers have been rendered as scattered parts or intact trophy pieces – in simpler diction, human carcasses paraded before television viewers.

When decision makers at channels are asked if it’s appropriate to sully the airwaves in this manner, they shrug and offer the evergreen reply that it is their responsibility to report what is happening. When pressed if this manner of reporting is responsible, they argue that violent images are only aired after a viewer discretion warning is flashed on screen or relayed through a presenter. And don’t get them started about how they choose which bloody scenes are appropriate for prime time viewing, and which are not: is it okay to show the dead body of Pakistan's enemy number one and not okay when it’s the body of a soldier or civilian?

The main question remains: who is building the appetite for blood and gore and how can it be stopped?

Across the globe, broadcast outlets with responsible editorial guidelines have a system of checks and counterchecks that dictate what can go on air. In Pakistan, there seems to be no such mechanism – either at separate television stations or via an association of media outlets – ensuring that only appropriate and ethical images are broadcast.

In most contexts, journalists rightfully stand against curbs in the form of guidelines by the government. But there needs to be some sort of accountability. Based on the principle that ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,’ a uniform ethics policy must be instituted – and implemented – by the independent media at large.

Broadcasters need to carefully consider – on a case-by-case basis, no less – what constitutes good reporting, and what is mere exhibitionism. And in an ideal situation, viewers need to be given a choice about what kinds of images they consume, rather than being forced to scamper for the remote and change the channel every time blood or a body part flash across the screen. For instance, when Saddam Hussein was executed, a sensitive broadcaster did not display the hanging or the dead body, but included a shot of the late dictator’s face in its television coverage of the event. In order to provide its viewers with a complete sense of what happened, the broadcaster uploaded a video of the entire hanging on its website. That way, whoever wanted to see the more gruesome images could log on and watch what happened at their own discretion.

Now, as Pakistan is making headway against militancy and the security forces are touting the return of normalcy to towns and cities, it is the media’s responsibility to take steps to heal the scars on the thought processes, memory, and soul of the country. Such a sensitive time, calls for sensitive judgement.

A while ago, when India was celebrating its nuclear tests, novelist and activist Arundhati Roy wrote: Why does this all seem so familiar? Is it because, even as you watch, reality dissolves and seamlessly rushes forward into the silent, black-and-white images from old films - scenes of people being hounded out of their lives, rounded up and herded into camps? Of massacre, of mayhem, of endless columns of broken people making their way to nowhere? Why is there no soundtrack? Why is the hall so quiet? Have I been seeing too many films? Am I mad? Or am I right? Could those images be the inescapable culmination of what we have set into motion? Could our future be rushing forward into our past? Her point that visuals inform both the sense of horror that is publicly perceived, as well as the sense of detachment and disassociation is relevant in present-day Pakistan too.

The common practice of providing live coverage of funerals and showing the face of the dead person on air, broadcasting bullet-riddled and blood-stained bodies of suspected terrorists, zooming in on the identifiable faces of rape victims, and incessantly screening the scattering of body parts after suicide blasts needs to stop. Every independent media outlet now has a website on which to post the images/videos that might require viewer discretion. More innovative ways of offering viewers the choice of how much blood and gore they consume can also be devised.

The reality is that the public has begun to block television screens for children and demonise news channels. If the media does not let its audience feel a sense of self-accountability and participate in decision-making processes, it risks losing credibility –  an irreplaceable asset. If the youth, the majority of Pakistanis, are disgusted, disgruntled, and daunted by what they see on air, rather than made aware of the wrongs they need to collectively address, all the good work being done by the media to get the facts out may amount to naught.

Osama Bin Javaid is a Senior Duty Editor at DawnNews TV.