On Thursday night, an armed man, accompanied by his wife and two children, entered into a standoff with police in the heart of Islamabad. The stalemate lasted five hours and ended only after the intervention of an unarmed civilian forced the police to act.

In the aftermath of this incident, the Chief Justice of Pakistan ordered the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to issue a show cause notice to media channels that covered the event live.  PEMRA complied, and in the notice alleged that such coverage violated the terms of their licenses that prohibit broadcasting anything encouraging terrorism or inciting violence.

PEMRA’s argument is debatable at best, flawed at worst. The media has a responsibility to inform citizens of important events, especially those concerning their security and safety of movement. There is no justification to assume that covering such incidents incites violence, or that this particular incident was triggered by exposure to media coverage. The onus of proving such assertions rests with PEMRA.

If the government genuinely believed that a media blackout was necessary for it to apprehend the assailant, it would not have been difficult for it to jam phone transmissions from the area.  The government’s capacity to do so has been demonstrated on several occasions, such as Ashura, when there is heightened risk of militant activity.

While we do not believe that broadcasting the event was inappropriate, in and of itself, it is important for the media to be open to criticism of any excesses that might have been committed in the coverage. Interviewing the gunman’s children, especially once their father was in hospital with serious injuries, was insensitive and unnecessarily traumatic for minors.  Similarly, there was little need for the local media in Hafizabad to air the family’s wedding photographs on TV.

Media coverage of the Jinnah Avenue confrontation cannot be proven to have incited violence or promoted terrorism. Rather, it simply depicted reality and served an informational need. The fact that such incidents are becoming increasingly frequent is a symptom of deeper structural causes in society, than media coverage. PEMRA’s notice to television channels is simply a case of 'shooting the messenger'.