Media blackout  

When news of Mumtaz Qadri, one of Pakistan’s most notorious death-row prisoners, being state executed became public on Monday morning, Pakistanis were glued to their televisions, in a voyeuristic eagerness for more information. Although social media and news websites erupted, most local mainstream television channels remained mysteriously quiet and almost aloof. So why, when there was an almost opportunity to gain ratings, was there an eerie media silence?

On February 29, the day of the hanging, PEMRA tweeted a warning: “all TV channels to refrain from inciting sectarianism, hatred or violence through shows, reports, tickers [sic]. Journalism is a public undertaking and journalists have an ethical responsibility to inform citizens about events and issues, so media blackouts, in principle, are not always to be supported. There are exceptions to the rule, however, and choosing to not give Qadri’s funeral airtime is to be lauded as a wise decision given the country’s current circumstances, and can be viewed to be in accordance with the 2015 National Action Plan.

Broadcasting Qadri’s zealous supporters throwing rose-petals on the ambulance that carried his dead body, much like when lawyers showered him with rose-petals after he killed the then governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, would have portrayed Qadri to be a victim and a hero, instead of the criminal that he was. Every rational Pakistani — and there are more of those than them — would have shrank back in their seats in fear, giving these zealots the victory they wanted. It could have led to incitement of hatred, crime and/or murder. Giving oxygen to the cause of extremists and terrorists is the worst mistake media houses can commit, given the current environment of heightened religious sensitivities over real or perceived slights.

It is important to ensure that while emotions rule supreme in many a case in which alleged religious issues come into play, that there is no compartmentalisation of the reality of a judicial verdict. Notwithstanding the myriad narratives enveloping the death sentence, rejection of mercy appeal, and subsequently, execution of Qadri, there is a categorical absence of ambiguity on the legal merits of the case. Qadri, in cold blood, killed an unarmed man, shooting him 27 times on point-blank range, and that too in the presence of witnesses, and in broad daylight. He later confessed to his crime, too. The death sentence of Qadri was under the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997, and the rejection of the mercy appeal was as per “the 203 G and 230 of the Constitution, the interpretation of the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) fell within the exclusive domain, power and jurisdiction of the Federal Shariat Court.”

Pakistani television channels have a long way to go when it comes to ethical journalism, but to see media houses united was heartening indeed. Ignoring Qadri’s funeral and the subsequent protests that broke out sends an important message as we battle this War on Terror to those who seek vile attention: you will not win, and we will not bow down in fear to you. *