Media in Pakistan are challenging the country’s political leaders to allow journalists to do their job without intimidation in advance of a grueling election campaign over the coming months.
Last week editors, journalists and media leaders in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad put the finishing touches to a ground-breaking code of conduct for election reporting on the initiative of the Pakistan Coalition for Ethical Journalism.
They say the code aims to make journalism safer during the run-up to national elections in May next year and will combat malpractice in a notoriously corrupt political culture.
“This code will ensure that the election is fought, not bought,” said Mazhar Abbas, Express TV Current Affairs Editor of and chairman of the Pakistan Coalition. “If media can stand up against corruption inside journalism it will be a signal to political parties to clean up their own act.”
He was supported by another editor, Kamal Siddiqi, Editor of Express-Tribune, who said the code would help journalists maintain professionalism. "In Pakistan being a journalist during election time makes you very vulnerable,” he said. “You are pressurized from different sides. This code will help us report the truth and report on issues that matter for voters."
The code, which is the first of its kind agreed by media themselves, is accompanied by an extensive checklist of advice, including ways of avoiding conflicts of interest, ensuring the safety of media staff in a country that has become one of the most dangerous for journalists in the field, and suggestions on how to establish editorial teams to report on the election.
Above all, the code outlaws rumour, speculation and hate speech, particularly incitement to violence and the use of inflammatory language.
In the febrile sectarian atmosphere of Pakistan politics this unprecedented public pledge promote tolerance and to ensure that all parties and candidates are given fair and equal coverage is a bold statement of intent.
But it comes with support from the top of the industry. Azhar Abbas, Chief Executive of GEO TV, Pakistan’s leading broadcaster and also a leading member of the Coalition said: “Ethics are important because the media, especially the electronic media industry, is still in its infancy.
“We have taken great strides in fighting for freedom of speech and democracy. But now we need to look from the inside. It’s time to have a clear set of ethics and a code of conduct so that the media can be judged and held accountable. This is never more important than during an election.”
The code is being submitted to the Pakistan Commissioner for elections and to the country’s major political parties seeking their support. The Coalition for Ethical Journalism says the code should be recognised by the commission and political leaders.
“They should see this as a strong statement from media and journalists that they want to strengthen professionalism,” said Mazhar Abbas. “If they get the message the upcoming elections will work for democracy as a whole and not just serve the narrow interests of the rich and powerful.”
The launch of the code and election reporting guidelines signals the end of the first phase of co-operation between Pakistan media and the Ethical Journalism Network in a programme which has been organised with Internews Europe, and supported by the European Union and the Norwegian Foreign Ministry. The final text of the code and information on other activities can be found here.
The EJN and the Coalition will continue to work together in the coming months to organise workshops and training for media and journalists on how to put the principles set out in the code into practice.