Dear Editors, Please Wake Up!
I remember the first time I got a small job at a newspaper and wrote my first article. I was proud of it and certain that it would shake things up. One of my heroes was Bob Woodward, the American journalist who broke the ‘Watergate’ story about corruption in the White House. I imagined myself being loved by the people and feared by corrupt politicians and businessmen. The Bob Woodward of Pakistan! When my editor summoned me to his office I was certain he would praise my good work. Instead, I found the opposite.
“What is your source for this information?” he asked. I was stunned. Everybody knew the rumours. It was common knowledge. “You can’t just go around making such claims about people without some very solid evidence! If you are wrong, you will look like a fool and I will look like a fool also!” He was irate. My piece never ran. And a good thing it was, too – I had accused the wrong man.
This taught me a very important lesson about reporting. Sometimes reporters get a little bit caught up in a story. It becomes hard to separate yourself and see the facts objectively once you are sure that you have your man. You actually become part of the story yourself – the hero reporter who exposes corruption.
This is where the editor has a vital job. It is his responsibility to look at the story, judge it based on the sources and the evidence, and decide if it is fit to print. At least, he should. It seems that too often our editors today are falling asleep on the job and letting any Tom, Dick or Harry run whatever wild story they want. We need our editors to please do their job.
Babar Ayaz understands what I am saying. His column for Daily Times yesterday perfectly describes the problem of editors asleep on the job.
Once upon a time, there used to be a thing called editorial judgement. With the advent of private sector electronic media, mushrooming of the print media and extreme shortage of experienced professional journalists, editorial judgement about what is printable or fit for telecast and what is not is scarcely exercised. Almost everything is telecast and printed without considering its consequences. In the absence of an effective watchdog to monitor the watchdog, a label media likes to use for itself, it is free-style wrestling in the media. The subject of media ethics is discussed sometimes in private sittings by senior journalists. The only structured debate on the electronic media, democracy and extremism was held in late 2008 by SAFMA.
Let us take a few recent incidents that have made people think about whether the media should not be prudent about what it says and prints. And that objectivity, which is the fundamental requirement of journalism, is missing in most news reports and talk shows. For instance, opposition leader Mian Nawaz Sharif expressed his concern against the killings of about 100 Ahmedis in Lahore. As he considers all the Pakistanis his brothers and sisters, and rightly so, he addressed them in the same manner. But then some religious extremist declared him apostate just because he called the Ahmedis his brothers and sisters. Some channels and most Urdu newspapers printed statements against him in which the religious parties asked him to apologise or be excommunicated from the realm of Islam. Now the question is, should such statements be given coverage where one sect declares a person or a sect non-Muslim or an apostate? This question becomes more relevant as we have seen that many killings were incited by the intolerance built by extremist mullahs and tele-bigots. Both the persons who issue and print such statements can be sued for defamation.
It is here that editors, if there are any real editors left, have to exercise their editorial judgement. Inciting people to violence in the name of religion, ethnic differences or, for that matter, against any other country is a cognisable offence. This law is not only violated by the bigoted mullah from the pulpits and through press statements, it is quite often disregarded by editors. There are many in our country who preach violence against other sects and countries using all means of communication.
Another example is that of Fauzia Wahab who was criticised just for quoting a historical fact. She is being hounded by some religious leaders. The irony is that Fauzia Wahab became apologetic once the mullahs got after her. If these religious scholars would have been there in the first four centuries after the advent of Islam, I am afraid Islamic jurisprudence could not have developed an inch as many celebrated Muslim scholars would have been declared apostates by the present breed of clergy. There is no possibility of an educated open discussion on religion without inviting threats from the narrow-minded clergy. And these people are supported by their media disciples. Any move to check them is called an attack on freedom of expression. But this freedom of expression is one-sided indeed and is not available for the humanists who want to challenge the extremist views.
The frenzy built by these religious parties is so noisy and violent that even the Punjab chief minister got cowed down and did not visit the families of the Ahmedis who were killed. He did visit the family of a policeman who was killed by the extremists, but avoided to be seen with any Ahmedi. Even if we accept the constitutional and legal sins of Bhutto and Zia that declared the Ahmedis as a minority, they still have a right to their chief minister’s attention. But I am glad that Mian Nawaz Sharif has shown courage and did not retract from his statement. That shows signs of political maturity.
Another good sign was that a private TV channel in one of its talk shows had the courage to allow the leader of the Ahmedis to explain his community’s position on a number of issues. Though the participants of his programme were ideologically against the Ahmedis, they at least condemned the killings. However, when one of the participants said that the governor Punjab was the only one who visited them, the anchor’s comment that one does not know about Governor Taseer’s religion was unbecoming. I did not expect him to say this because he was preaching tolerance for others’ faith.
We have a right to disagree with the Ahmedis’ interpretation of Islam, but they have a right as well to disagree with us. The majority of the English media, however, took a clear stand against the sectarian killings and avoided to give coverage to hate-spitting statements.
Now let us take another incident that has rocked the media world. This publication printed the alleged transcript of a phone call of the popular talk show host, Hamid Mir, with one of the Punjabi Taliban. I have consciously used the word ‘alleged’ because that is what media ethics require. Till such time the allegation is proved, one should not be presented as guilty. Initially, according to another English daily’s report, he said that it was his voice but the tape was doctored. Then he retracted and said it was not his voice. A number of questions remained unanswered here: whether it is Hamid’s voice or not? Who taped it and on what authority? Only one thing is certain, that the views expressed in the tape were not denied by Hamid. They are the same as those written by him in his column after the murder of Khalid Khawaja. All this in a civilised society with developed institutions would have been probed by an independent press commission in the light of a laid down code of ethics.
The channel for which Hamid works said they have formed an internal committee. I believe the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) has also established a committee to probe into these charges. Not much is expected from these inquiries. The problem is that the Press Council, which is supposed to take up media ethics violation cases, is in incubation now for many years. At present it is a headless chicken. Even if it was functional, it could only deal with issues related to the print media and not the electronic media.