- Associated Press - Thursday, July 1, 2010

ISLAMABAD (AP) — A government-backed proposal to limit Pakistani broadcasters’ terror coverage and criticism of the state is causing concern among journalists who fear it will stifle the country’s feisty, flourishing media.

A plethora of TV news networks have begun in recent years. Intensely competitive, they have not shied away from covering grisly aftermaths of suicide bombings, stories of government corruption, or allowing their talk show hosts to pontificate on air. That has fueled friction with some politicians, who say much of what is broadcast is exaggerated, false or irresponsible.

The regulations would curb certain types of images and reporting by broadcast outlets, including showing mutilated bodies or interviews with militant leaders. A copy of the proposal also includes a vague admonition against broadcasting “anything defamatory against the organs of the State.”

Violators could be punished by fines of up to 10 million rupees ($117,000) or prison terms up to three years.

The proposal has been vetted by a parliamentary committee and is expected to reach the full National Assembly later this summer.

“For us this is not a freedom of media issue,” said Farahnaz Ispahani, a committee member from the ruling party. “This is really more about responsibility, because it’s creating depression among the people of Pakistan. No civilized society, no civilized country in the world glorifies extremists and terrorists. Pakistan’s electronic media has not come up with their own code of conduct in this regard.”

It is very uncommon for democratic countries to legislate sweeping bans on what the media can cover when it comes to terrorism, although Iraq has imposed vague rules that prohibit broadcast reports that cause “incitement of sectarianism,” said Joel Simon, executive director of the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Mr. Simon criticized the proposed Pakistani regulations, saying they “would have a devastating impact on … some of the most basic and essential coverage of events that are part of the news in Pakistan.”

Vincent Brossel, Asia director for the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, said any regulation should more appropriately come from the media itself.

Top managers from Pakistan’s eight TV news channels agreed among themselves last year to standardize professional guidelines governing terrorism coverage. They decided they would desist from showing graphic and disturbing images on the screen and at times use a delay mechanism that would enable channels to edit out undesirable footage.

But that decision did not deter the parliamentary committee from seeking official regulations.

Mr. Ispahani, the committee member, declined to elaborate on the clause regarding the “organs of the state,” only saying it was “the product of a multiparty committee.” Other committee members could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.

Pakistani journalists said it seems like a move toward state censorship.

“We have not seen even a draft of this so-called code of conduct for the electronic media,” said Pervez Shaukat, the head of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists. “We are not against a code of conduct for the electronic media, but all stake-holders should be taken into confidence.”

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