Journalists as impartial observers?

Despite being based in an urban centre like Karachi, I have covered numerous dangerous events which includes blasts, police encounters, and violent street protests to name a few. But then, journalism is a profession where journalists often confront situations of extreme danger.
Here I quote one of my many personal experiences: the coverage of twin blasts at Karsaz that struck Benazir Bhutto’s home-coming procession in 2007 is one such stark reminder of a heavy price prevailing democracy paid. While it was next to impossible to prevent the Karsaz tragedy due to the mob, most journalists covering the event became a casualty themselves. A cameraman from a local news channel died in the line of duty while many others were wounded. Though the blasts took place in front of our eyes, we were spared by being in a safe position. Foreign media kept its distance and only reached the spot once they deemed it safe. I emerged unscathed, partly because of the one important lesson I learnt throughout my experience as a broadcast journalist: while covering such events, it is always essential to weigh the benefits against the risks. Cover the story, don’t become the story yourself. I do take risks, like most other journalists; however, I avoid taking unnecessary ones.
When covering sensitive or dangerous issues, we definitely run the risk of becoming a casualty. But what is new to this subject is the changing perception of what the role of a journalist is i.e, a gatherer of evidence or an impartial observer? Pakistan is currently fighting several battles, domestic as well as global, and escalation of each battle means a surge in danger for journalists. In a bid to control the media, journalists are now encountering growing pressure from all the “stakeholders”, be it the government, army or militants.
In my opinion, constantly facing serious and often life-threatening challenges have made Pakistani journalists even more committed. Unlike journalists from developed countries, where personal safety training is mandatory, Pakistani journalists with minimum or no opportunities of such training continue performing their duties, especially in the conflict-prone tribal belt. They have to rely solely on field experience to avoid mishaps.
According to the International Press Institute, 12 Pakistani journalists have been killed in 2010. Still, local news organisations and media outlets in Pakistan have not felt the need to train journalists for hostile environment reporting. This means being unaware of basic journalism ethics, which also undermines the quality of reportage. This also means that they are devoid of tactics for “developing sources” as a news gatherer. These journalists wish to be “impartial” but the hostile environment leads to fear and ambiguity, which results in their compulsion to develop a “not-so-professional contact” within security agencies or militant outfits.
The military as well as the militants are “trained, experienced and organised” and know the rules of their game, but the untrained and helpless journalists don’t! Of late, the deadly approach of electronic media of more information, instead of following measures to ensure the safety of reporters, has taken a front seat. Fear for their lives and pressure for more information from their organisation compel reporters to compromise on reportage. And thus, impartial observance is taken over by merely gathering evidence for either side.
In my opinion, training media professionals on how to cover conflicts will enhance their understanding of their role as journalists and will also encourage their independent decision-making abilities. Truth needs to be preserved; otherwise constructive development of press and media in recent times has no meaning at all.

By Sabin Agha