"This should have taken place 20 years ago, but it is still a revolutionary step forward for us even today.”
These words, spoken at the latest meeting of editors and news directors of a large number of newspapers and television channels, captured the spirit of camaraderie that defines a new initiative that spans across local media; Editors for Safety, an organisation focused exclusively on issues related to violence and threats of violence against the media.
The decision to bypass existing rivalries (often times wars) between some of the larger media houses was surprisingly easy given their one point agenda and the increasing attacks and threats on journalists in 2014-15. 2015 alone has seen over 30 attacks on media personnel, while the 2014 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders ranks Pakistan at a low 158 out of 180 countries analysed.
As shared in the launch press release, the basic philosophy of Editors for Safety has been laid out – an attack on one journalist or media house will be considered an attack on the entire media. The members of Editors for Safety will assess such situations and jointly make decisions regarding media coverage of violence and threats of violence against any media house as if it were an attack against themselves.
With this philosophy in hand, what began as an informal meeting in mid-2015 among a handful of editors and news directors quickly became a powerful organisation of those who control the news agenda across print, TV and digital. With Zaffar Abbas, Editor of Dawn elected as its first chairman, the first phase of this group materialised in the form of real-time decisions taken on how to cover attacks or threats to media across groups, across platforms.
Questions that would have remained unanswered when the media was fragmented and isolated now pour in: “Do you want us to cover this attack?”, “How should we cover this threat?”, “If we sustain coverage for several bulletins what will the impact be?”, “What unified message should our editorials and news reports convey?”, “Is there any way we can keep this story alive?”
These questions, and the quick response to them helped the media speak with one voice against the prevalent culture of impunity, where journalists across the country are attacked on a regular basis, and perpetrators are rarely brought to justice.
Beyond coverage, the second phase will see this united front providing assistance to any journalist or media house that needs help in dealing with attacks or threats by providing resources, sharing information and expertise, or reaching out to stakeholders (state, non-state or otherwise) to tackle the situation.
Can Editors for Safety respond to all forms of problems consistently and at speed? Will there be an equal response for freelance journalists and small organisations as there would be for the larger media groups?
Many opportunities and challenges now lie ahead. One of the primary goals right now is the need to bring all media on board, from those heading large newspapers and TV channels, to those operating in far-flung regions where threats and attacks take on a whole new dimension. As Editors for Safety continues to grow, if it is unable to expand its network, it will be missing a large part of the problem.
In the latest meeting, it was decided that members would approach all newspaper editors and television news directors to join Editors for Safety. As shared in the press release, a decision was also taken to consult with the All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS), the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA) and the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE) and invite them to nominate representatives to Editors for Safety. Thankfully, given its single point agenda and the nature of how Editors for Safety operates, resentment or a conflict of interest with existing journalist bodies has not arisen.
How will Editors for Safety respond when there is an inevitable difference of opinion on SOPs?
Another key challenge that lies ahead is the establishment of standard operating procedures (SOPs) that can apply across media, most of which have SOPs for safety and security that were developed in isolation. Can there be standardisation of what needs to be done when an attack, kidnapping or credible threat occurs? Can Editors for Safety respond to all forms of problems consistently and at speed? Will there be an equal response for freelance journalists and small organisations as there would be for the larger media groups? And perhaps most critically, how will Editors for Safety respond when there is an inevitable difference of opinion on SOPs?
Whatever the case, the establishment of Editors for Safety has sent out a very comforting message to working journalists in a time of fear and uncertainty: you are not alone, we can act as one.
So far, the expanding membership and those in consultation with Editors for Safety includes editors and news directors from Aaj TV, ARY News, AVT, Awami Awaz, Balochistan Express, Business Recorder, Channel 24, Daily Express, Daily Intekhab, Daily Pakistan, DAWN, DawnNews, Dawn.com, Dunya News, Express News, Ibrat, Geo News, KTN, Kawish, Nawa-e-Waqt/
The Nation Group, Online News Agency, Pakistan Press Foundation, Pakistan Today, PTV, Pakistan Observer, Samaa, The Express Tribune, The Jang Group and Regional Times.
In the latest meeting it was decided that Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) would be the secretariat of Editors for Safety.
Jahanzaib Haque is Editor, Dawn.com, and a member of Editors for Safety.