A press release from the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority calls the Indian broadcast media’s terror coverage ‘crass sensationalism’. Senior Indian journalists respond.
New Delhi: After the suicide bomb attack in a Lahore park that killed at least 69 people and injured hundreds on March 27, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) issued a press release [pdf] on how the broadcast media should cover the incident.
“In the wake of Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi incidents, media is expected to cover the events with utmost professional responsibility keeping in mind that any irresponsible or hyper attitude at this stage can jeopardise the ongoing National Action Plan,” the release read. “Pakistani media needs to follow the example of professional handling of Brussels attacks by international media rather than following in the footsteps of Indian media that is driven by crass commercialisation” (emphasis added).
Speaking to The Wire, senior journalists from the broadcast media in India had differing views on the subject. While none disagreed that the media may have a thing or two to learn, several journalists felt PEMRA’s comment was unnecessary and ill-advised.
Rajdeep Sardesai of India Today spoke against the implicated competitiveness of the statement. “It is hard to say why this was done. All I can say is that this kind of one-upmanship on who covered a terrorist attack with more sensitivity, Indian or Pakistani media, isn’t needed. I think we both have a lot to learn and much space for improvement,” Sardesai said. “A terror attack, especially of the kind we saw (in Lahore) is ghastly, senseless and unacceptable. To then say that Indians cover it in a sensationalist manner and Pakistani’s don’t – I haven’t seen any great evidence of that to be honest. As I said, I think both of us need to show greater sensitivity and restraint. Let’s not get into a competition on this.”
Ravish Kumar of NDTV India called PEMRA’s comment on the Indian and European media “laughable”. “Yes, the European media is very sensitive when there is an attack in Europe. They devote all their time and resources to covering it. But what happens when the attack is somewhere else in the world? Where is their coverage on Yemen, Turkey and other countries that have seen terrorist attacks? Their sensitivity is not visible then. Is this what PEMRA wants the Pakistani media to learn?” he asked, claiming that statements like this put the European media on a pedestal. “Also, are they claiming that none of their media houses are run on profits? Are they all state funded? Of course that isn’t true. What this statement really shows is that authorities like this one are very limited, and need to reinvent themselves if they are to be taken seriously.”
Editorial director and president of the ethics committee at NDTV Sonia Singh felt that this statement was a way for the Pakistan government to “disguise censorship”. “Their statement is absolutely ridiculous,” she added. “I don’t think there is any truth in what they have said about the Indian media.”
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, editor designate of the Economic and Political Weekly, said though the Indian media definitely had room to improve, PEMRA’s comment on the Indian media was “a little pot shot” at India. “It’s not that the Indian media has always been responsible while reporting terror incidents. In the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, particular TV channels were even accused of inadvertently helping the terrorists. There was a lot of internal discussion after that, a delegation from the broadcast media even went to meet the then prime minister Manmohan Singh on what could be done differently and whether certain restrictions could be set. But eventually nothing came out of it,” Thakurta remembered.
Thakurta went on to say that media practices may also reflect government and security practices after an attack. “On international standards, people often say look at how the American media reported after 9/11. The area was cordoned off, TV cameras couldn’t go there in the immediate aftermath of the incident. I don’t know what these international standards of reporting are or whether there are any global good practices on how to report a terror incident, but I think it has a lot to with how local authorities enforce law and order.”
Sevanti Ninan, founding editor of The Hoot, said that though though their assessment of the Indian media’s coverage of such events was right, it seemed like PEMRA was trying to “score a point”. “Though definitely,” she added, “The fact that the Indian media needs to check how they cover terror attacks is reinforced by PEMRA’s statement.”
Urmilesh Singh, former executive editor of Rajya Sabha TV, was more sympathetic to PEMRA’s statement, though he too agreed with Sardesai’s opinion on the unnecessary competitiveness. “India and Pakistan, both countries have sections of the media that tend to sensationalise terror incidents. These days, I would even say that this phenomenon is growing faster in India than in Pakistan. If I take one example – when Indian security officers caught Ajmal Kasab, Pakistani authorities kept insisting that he was not from there. It was Pakistani media that went to Kasab’s village and found that he was indeed Pakistani. But I never heard any compliments for Pakistani journalists from the Indian press or authorities on this. This is one example, of course it does not mean that all of the Pakistani media is doing an objective and good job,” he told The Wire.
“I would not say that PEMRA’s suggestion is wrong or that they should not have said this,” Singh continued. “I believe that this is a problem in both countries. There is a long tradition of professionalism in the western media, even though they too make mistakes. Often they have trouble understanding Asian countries, or make mistakes in understanding Islam and Islamic countries and terrorism. But even then, I would say that their coverage is more professional. We should definitely learn from that, there is no problem there.”
“There is no reason for India and Pakistan to get into a ‘my shirt is whiter than yours’ argument,” he concluded. “But if someone says that you shouldn’t learn from India in this matter I would not consider that to be wrong.”
Note: The Wire reached out to a number of senior Pakistani TV journalists for their comments on the PEMRA advisory and will incorporate their responses when we receive them. A query to PEMRA about the reasons behind its assessment of the Indian media has so far gone unanswered.