No country in the world has been affected more than Pakistan by the phenomenon of terrorism in terms of men and material and the psychological scars on society as a result of bombings and attacks. The combination of the reactionary, retrogressive and destructive philosophies of terrorism and extremism also poses an existentialist threat to the country and has given rise to a host of fissiparous tendencies within society that threaten the cohesiveness and harmony needed to march forward as a united nation.

The political leadership of Pakistan and its security forces are trying their level best to deal with these merchants of death and destruction with all the resources at their command and have already launched a decisive operation against the terrorists which they are resolved to take to its logical conclusion. However, this phenomenon cannot be eliminated only through the use of force and the physical destruction of the terrorists and their bases. It also needs to be fought on an ideological basis. There is a dire need to develop a counter narrative that effectively neutralizes the dogmas preached by these outfits and is widely disseminated amongst the masses through a well focused, effectively coordinated and comprehensive communications strategy. The onus of this kind of effort basically rests on the government towards whom the people always look to for providing solace and help in overcoming the traumatic and psychological scars inflicted by terrorists. To ensure the success of any such initiative, it is imperative to train government officers responsible for communicating this narrative to the masses, officials of the law enforcing agencies in dealing with the acts of terrorism and handling media in a crisis situation. Equally important is taking the media along with a view to enlisting its cooperation in checking the indiscretion of certain media outlets in covering the acts of terrorism without caring for the sensitivities involved and the negative impact that this kind of approach has on society. So, the media has a pivotal role in fighting terrorism.

There are no two opinions about the fact that acts of terrorism not only have a devastating impact on the victims and their kith and kin but also have a morale-sapping impact on the whole of society. This agony is further precipitated by the spectacle of charred and mutilated bodies aired live by the TV channels sending a wave of anxiety and fear amongst the masses besides providing worldwide publicity to the incidents and the ability of the terrorists to enact them at a time and place of their choosing. That actually serves the purpose of the perpetrators of such heinous and inhuman acts. There is no escape from the fact that the media has played a very positive role in exposing the machinations and designs of the terrorists but it is also an irrefutable reality that it has unconsciously also provided a platform to terrorists to promote and propagate their agenda and renegade philosophies. The indiscretions committed by some TV channels during the live coverage of incidents like attacks on GHQ, Kamra Complex and Marine and Naval bases at Karachi, other security installations and suicide bombings at Wahga border recently, left much to be desired. The quest by media outlets to outwit their rivals in breaking news for improving their rating is quite understandable from a professional point of view. This must invariably be done with utmost circumspection, because of the likely repercussions. There is a strong possibility that the live coverage of such incidents might jeopardize the efforts of the security forces to effectively neutralize the terrorists during an attack. Take for example, the live coverage of the attack on GHQ. I vividly remember that some channels covering the incident were even reporting about the movement of the commandos assigned the task of rescuing hostages not realizing that the handlers of the terrorists watching the coverage could easily have alerted the terrorists about the approaching danger, who in their desperation could have killed all hostages. It is a universally recognized principle that media outlets, while reporting stories relating to hijacking, hostage-taking and terrorist attacks, must heed the advice of the authorities. Another recognized and accepted norm of covering such incidents live is to avoid dishing out pictures which could trigger a wave of despondency, depression and fear amongst viewers.

People have started raising questions about allowing live coverage of acts of terrorism. While no body in his right mind would begrudge the new found freedom of expression in the media, at the same time people would expect the media to enjoy their freedom with responsibility and unblemished regard to the sensitivities involved and the demands of national interests. While barring media outlets from live coverage of such incidents is not the preferred option, there is a dire need to develop an effective mechanism to ensure strict editorial supervision of the live coverage and a time lag in consigning those pictures to the airwaves.

It is indeed encouraging to note that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has recently launched an initiative known as ‘Counter Terrorism Strategic Communication’ under which the information officers attached with different ministries, officers of the law enforcing agencies and organizations dealing with acts of terrorism will be trained in developing communication skills and techniques of interacting with the media during crisis situations. A two-day training course for information officers was held during the last week. A dialogue with media is also part of the newly developed strategy which probably is the most important segment of the programme. The cooperation between the government and the media is absolutely indispensable in firming up the guidelines and strategies to deal with such situations and also to mount a counter offensive against terrorists on the ideological front. The fight against terrorism and extremism looks like a long drawn out engagement. People need to be motivated and prepared for this battle. The strategy evolved by the Ministry of Information is a good step and needs to be pursued with unswerving commitment. Our valiant forces are taking care of the fight on the ground and the nation needs to compliment and supplement that effort on the ideological front.

n    The writer is a freelance columnist.