Pakistan’s so-called free press has become a beggar’s market where cheap and shoddy journalism is sold to the highest bidder…. writes Shaheen Sehbai.
Who will Bell the Bad, Fat Cats?
January 5, 2000
This article has been submitted for publication to all major newspapers in Pakistan
Every one in the present morally, intellectually and financially depleted Pakistan — the print media and its well-entrenched “gurus” among the foremost — is shouting from the roof top for accountability of every one else. Yet no one has seriously demanded, nor does any one appear to be contemplating, any accountability of the media itself.
Accountability of the media should, under ordinary circumstances, be conducted by peers of the profession in terms of its moral, professional and intellectual integrity. But in the lopsided Pakistani context, financial accountability of journalists, columnists, newspaper owners, publishers and editors also needs to be promptly and urgently undertaken and that would require intervention of the State investigative apparatus.
Accountability to determine integrity should not just include professional and financial conduct of journalists but it should also try to understand the reasons why objective journalism and traditional professional journalists are fast becoming an extinct breed and almost all opinion writing, analysis and interpretation work has been taken over by “lateral entrants” — people who had no journalistic training, who never went through the mill, who acquired writing skills doing something else and when they failed in their professions, took refuge in journalism.
These “lateral entrants” mostly comprise ambitious generals, politicians, bureaucrats, technocrats and opportunists, all masquerading as journalists, opinion makers and columnists of the highest order. Most of them have no reporting or editing skills and some appear to even have been planted by vested interests. It is common knowledge in Islamabad that at least two well known editors of the now-defunct Daily ‘Muslim’ were nominees of the military establishment, including one who became an ambassador and another who graduated to be a federal minister.
That most of them had, and still have, political ambitions and hidden agendas has never been concealed by them, as their current or past conduct would show. Many of them have virtually “used” journalism as a stepping stone to achieve their political and/or financial goals. Names in this category are numerous and if these big names are removed from the present spectrum of editors, leading op-ed writers, columnists, commentators and leader writers, newspapers would appear to be barren.
The purpose of this piece is not to condemn any one for his or her views and opinion nor does this piece encompass all the problems that journalism faces in Pakistan, specially the ills created by yellow journalism and a “free-for-all” attitude to Press freedoms. Yet one specific purpose is to pin point those who have been continuously “using” or “abusing” journalism for their own ends.
Some of these leading lights of present-day journalism in Pakistan are so brazen and unabashed in their pursuit of profit, politics or power, that they seem to have lost their sense and powers of judgement. They exercise their biased judgements only if their own political interests are served. They never measure their own conduct by the yardstick with which they measure everybody else in their writings.
Since all accountability processes began in the country from the cut off date of mid 80s, looking at the media scene in these 15 years brings up a horde of opportunists and power-grabbers, who have been rampaging the newspapers and their columns in one form or the other.
The best way to start such a process would be for the leading stars of the profession to present their own assets and liabilities to the public, like the Chief Executive and other services chiefs have done. One or two journalists have done that already but generally there is deafening silence. That would set the stage for authorities to go into their financial conduct. Newspaper owners and their families, some very high profile editors and some upstarts who overnight became millionaires after they turned editors and publishers, would have to answer a lot of messy questions.
The integrity check should simultaneously be launched by the peers of the profession at whatever forum they think would be appropriate. Perhaps this first hurdle may be the only big hurdle and may never be crossed.
The peers, naturally those who come out unscathed and “clean”, should sit down to formulate lists of those who have been publicly demonstrating a lack of intellectual, moral and professional integrity. Big names like Minhaj Barna, Mushahid Hussain, Maleeha Lodhi, Wajid Shamsul Hassan, Nazir Naji, Ataul Haq Qasmi, Ayaz Amir, Hussain Haqqani, Irshad Ahmed Haqqani, Najam Sethi, Nasim Zehra, Jamiluddin Aali and many others who sought or accepted political, diplomatic or government jobs, or joined political parties as activists, should be asked to explain why they did not quit journalism to do so and why they continued to use the profession to get, keep or regain lucrative jobs or positions of power. How do they retain, or claim to retain, their objectivity and credibility, once they have demonstrated their political ambitions. In the least they should have apologised to the profession.
Some of them have been going in and out of journalism so frequently as if the profession was a revolving door only to be used when they needed a push to restore their lost position of political, economic or administrative influence and power.
Some others, like the once-revered Minhaj Barna, who led the trade union movement of journalists and whose “Barna Group” of Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists still exists, accepted so petty, temporary and at times demeaning jobs that the entire profession could only hang its head in shame. Scenes when stalwarts of the profession like him were seen waiting outside offices of petty bureaucrats in Islamabad’s corridors of power, to get an extension of their foreign assignment were, to say the least, despicable, bringing no merit to Pakistani journalism.
I would never forget a supposedly well known name in today’s op-ed pages who, in order to “please” a lady ambassador in Washington, turned himself into her private photographer and started taking her pictures with all those present at a grand farewell dinner thrown at her official residence. For three hours this newspaper columnist behaved like a personal privately hired professional. He even carried his “act of sycophancy” to the next day at the airport where people went to see her off, clicking rolls and rolls of pictures with the ambassador sitting, standing, waving and smiling at every Tom, Dick, Harry and Larry. Even junior embassy staffers started making jokes about this senior journalist and his “buttering skills”. To his ultimate disgrace, he was never obliged by the slick ambassador, despite his publicly self-demeaning conduct. But later these very skills worked well with the successor political government and he landed a cushy government job in Islamabad. The moment the government was ousted, his columns started attacking his previous employers. Still he retains his claim to be an “impartial and objective” analyst and writer and does not include himself in the long list of trapeze artists that crowd the media circus in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s so-called free press is on the verge of becoming, or has already become, a beggar’s market where cheap and shoddy journalism is sold to the highest bidder — whether political or military — and thus the sellers get unprecedented access to power corridors. Many in Pakistan’s print and news media seem to have forgotten their responsibilities as guardians of the truth. It has therefore to be decided: whether these political aspirants, masquerading as journalists, deserve to be given the status of “objective commentators”; whether what they dish out every day as “informed opinion” or “dispassionate analysis” should be presented to the readers as material worthy of credit; and whether the value of transparency is not irreparably compromised.
Financial accountability of journalists has to take place parallel to what the peers may decide to do and for that the government sleuths have to determine how small-time reporters turned overnight into millionaires, newspapers owners and big-time real estate tycoons.
Tax accountability will demonstrate the fraud Pakistani journalism has evolved into. Tax collectors should go into the records of “overnight millionaire journalists” to determine whether, for example, the life style of some of the big names match what they have been paying into the exchequer, whether the properties they have built in short spans of time match the incomes, or losses, of their otherwise unprofitable newspaper organisations.
Cases of open and blatant government cash handouts to favourite journalists, newspapers and news agencies are no secret in Islamabad and Lahore. A deceased news agency owner, a small time reporter not long ago, was awarded two costly plots of land in Lahore to set up his news agency by the first Nawaz Sharif administration. The agency still claims to be “independent” but always dishes out planted stories that suit the rulers of the day. Open and blatant black mailing tactics by some vernacular newspapers were hated by every political government and party but no one ever tried to curb their activities, fearing an exposure. Only an honest and strong government could tackle these profiteering rags.
While the peers of the profession and the state probers look into the conduct of the mediamen, the editors and publishers should also carry out a simultaneous process of introspection to determine how other outsiders — opportunists and ambition-hunters — have used the print media for achieving political goals that would otherwise not be achievable.
This category would include a long list of uniformed generals, air marshals and admirals, retired bureaucrats and technocrats, many of whom were shunted out in disgrace — sinners of the past, who would just not quit, and continue to impose themselves on the nation in one form or the other. Politicians have also been trying frequently to use the media to stage a come back when they lost the game on their own wicket.
The spearheads of this list would be stalwarts like Altaf Gauhar from the bureaucracy and Lt. Gen. K.M. Arif from the khakis. But in politics, not only Benazir Bhutto has been trying to regularly push her case of innocence through op-ed pieces, even her famous one-time house-maid Naheed Khan got at least a couple of articles published in obliging newspapers to include her name in the list of those who could be seen brandishing the media sword. That was like adding salt to the injury.
I vividly recall my first encounter with Lt. General (Retd) K.M. Arif in Washington D.C. when I saw him at the Carnegie Institute, while he was here with the then opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, US columnist Mansoor Ijaz and Editor Najam Sethi to speak at a conference on nuclear proliferation in South Asia. I had always carried one question for the general which I had wished I could ask him. That day I did. We were standing in a small group of some five or six people including the then Assistant Secretary of State Robin Raphael and the then ambassador Maleeha Lodhi during the tea break, when I asked: “Have you, General, ever thought of apologising to the people of Pakistan for the years and years of rape of democracy and institutions that you committed in collusion with military dictator General Zia ul Haq, virtually as his No 2.”
The General was thunder struck. Face distorted, he tried to compose himself for a few anxious seconds and then said he would like to take a cup of coffee and moved away from the group. That general is one of the most outspoken authority on democracy and foreign affairs in our newspapers today and has just been named as a member of the think tank on foreign affairs by General Musharraf. His appointment can best be described as the most apt example of insulting the collective intelligence of the people. If he is not punished for what he did to democracy, he should at least have been banished from giving sermons on democracy and good governance in newspaper columns.
The list of foreign and home-based technocrats and experts on economy, sciences and geo-strategic subjects, who pushed their resumes through newspaper columns, would also not be a small one. Some may have achieved their objectives. What they did could probably not be called objectionable, but if they did so in collusion with newspaper editors and owners who now expect to be rewarded because the aspirant expert has assumed political power, it would be patently unethical and against professional integrity.
While carrying out this exercise of accountability by the peers and by the state apparatus, it should not be forgotten that journalism has always been proud of many who have remained spotless, intellectually and financially, despite the most adverse of conditions in their professional and personal lives. They would definitely emerge as the “clean peers” that we desperately need for self-cleansing.
Among those the profession has to remain forever thankful, are late Mazhar Ali Khan, A.T.Choudhri, Khwaja Asif, Nisar Osmani, Razia Bhatti and Maulana Salahuddin [the notorious protege of General Zia and Jamaat Islami] besides living legends like Ahmed Ali Khan and Zamir Niazi. Some very respectable names like Aziz Siddiqi, I.A. Rehman, S.G.M. Badruddin, A.B.S. Jafri, Salim Asmi, H.K. Burki, Munno Bhai, Hussain Naqi, and the present younger lot of many hard core professionals who have turned down all inducements and bribes, plots and privileges to remain honest and upright journalists, also need recognition.
These leading lights should do something to clean up journalism or what is left of it as a growing cesspool.