How can journalists reconcile the need to share information with the danger that the news they report could potentially incite violence or spread panic?
Pakistani media professional Ms Puruesh Chaudhary and others will address that question at the International Press Institute’s 2015 World Congress and General Assembly from March 27 to 29 in Yangon during the panel discussion “Straight Talk – The Ethical Coverage of Crises and Emergencies.”
The founder and president of Agahi, a network of journalists and media professionals in Pakistan, Ms Chaudhary has worked for nearly a decade in media and strategic communications and serves as Center for International Media Ethics ambassador to Pakistan. She recently shared her thoughts with IPI about responsible information sharing and the challenges journalists face when releasing information.
IPI: Have you been to Myanmar before? As you prepare for IPI’s 2015 World Congress, what do you expect and is there anything you hope to learn?
Chaudhary: I have never been to Myanmar. [I’m quite] glad to have received a speaker invitation. In Pakistan, we seldom hear of journalism-related challenges, opportunities and tech advancements from East Asia. The sessions in Yangon will give me an opportunity to connect with journalists and media development professionals from the region. Areas of interest are content credibility, hate speech and religion. I look forward to the discussions around these subjects – and I am hoping that we would mutually benefit from ideas exchanged, relationships built during the World Congress.
IPI: Journalists face many issues in the field, but what crucial challenges do crisis and emergency reporters face in reporting without inciting further violence?
Chaudhary: Having worked and trained journalists in Pakistan, I can safely ascertain that the media industry does not invest in professional development in terms of capacity building and training opportunities for their human resource. Since the beginning of the war on terror, we saw journalists losing lives as their respective organizations failed to provide adequate security training, safety equipment and flak- or bullet-proof jackets.
These days, the media in the country is grappling with the challenge of not being able to put across hate speech on-air; those that do, suffer immense backlash on social media. A unique voice is being heard from the first time that contests the dichotomy between journalism in its truest manifestation and ethical responsibility.... This is an encouraging trend that somehow washes away the expected role of the country’s electronic regulator, making it look weak and incompetent.
IPI: Some claim that media – by overwhelming people with information that fails to deliver a deeper understanding – can desensitize them and create a space for intolerance. Do you see any trends in journalism aimed at combating this, and how does that translate to covering crises and emergencies?
Chaudhary: During the war on terror, we did witness a high degree of insensitivity, generally towards suicide attacks, the rampant broadcast of terrorists’ narrative, sectarian killing. This last decade had somehow mellowed public sentiment until December 16, 2014, when more than 130 children were killed point blank or butchered within a few hours in broad daylight [in Peshawar]. Following that, the government of Pakistan announced a National Action Plan, something that should’ve taken place 10 years ago.
[The plan includes points on countering hate speech and extremist material, banning the glorification of terrorism in media and combating the abuse of online media in connection with terrorism].
One of the trends we have seen is public agitation [against] intolerance and hate speech being broadcasted, which now is also moving in on the vernacular print media. Naming and shaming seems to be key here. Pressure from civil society and the public mounts each time there is a violation of any of [those] three points. This is perhaps a slight contribution towards self-censorship and self-regulation. Still, there’s enough space to be covered for sensitising journalists on crisis or conflict reporting.
IPI: Your organization, Agahi, focuses in part on training journalists for fieldwork in crises. How do you help develop journalists’ capacities to report on crises?
Chaudhary: Pakistan is quite an intense country, so to speak; which makes it not only challenging but equally exciting. One thing we advocate in all of our training sessions is “Life Before a Story: Committed to journalism? Or committed to surviving...?”
Our training modules for conflict areas do not encourage journalists to cover conflict in its face, but we help them dig out stories which otherwise hardly make it to either a rundown or a back-page, strengthening the relationship between a journalist and his or her editor. Our training programmes mostly cover socio-economic indicators and ethical benchmarks. This enables a journalist to construct a news story on a given technical framework, while making it relevant for not only the local but also the international audience.
IPI: Agahi also focuses on creating media pluralism. What developments in terms of that have you seen in Pakistan in recent years and have you seen similar developments in other countries?
Chaudhary: Agahi’s industry-development initiatives on encouraging pluralism, accuracy and diversity include the Agahi Awards, a recognition platform for journalists all across Pakistan for producing best content, and the content evaluation framework to assess the entries covers diversity, pluralism and ethics. They also include the Media Credibility Index, another content evaluation and delivery tool [developed] in collaboration with Mishal Pakistan, which assesses current affairs anchors and programming for competence, ethics, accuracy, balance, timeliness and fairness.
There are several training and development efforts for the journalists, yet little is done at the industry level. So while there is breadth of professional experience contributing towards the Agahi Awards and the Media Credibility Index, nothing similar is happening, at least in the region. This opens a new gateway for collaboration across borders in terms of development initiatives.
*This interview has been edited and condensed by IPI.