Misinforming Pakistan -by Huma Imtiaz

As 2010 comes to a close, Pakistan’s journalists are in mourning for their colleagues that have been taken from them in incidents of bombings and targeted killings. At least eight journalists have been killed in Pakistan this year, with three in September and two in December alone at the hands of violent extremists who have wreaked havoc in the country with suicide bombings that have claimed the lives of hundreds of people in Pakistan this year (CPJ).

While the sacrifices of these brave journalists will not go unnoticed, several elements in the print media are abusing the hard-earned freedoms these journalists have struggled for. The electronic media in Pakistan is still in its teething phase, having only been in existence for the last eight years. Pakistan’s print publications, on the other hand, have been around for decades. It is therefore extremely disappointing that several papers recently printed incorrect stories that have either been issued by unknown elements, or have been printed to capitalize on confusion with little regard for accuracy.

In December 2010, following Cablegate i.e. the publishing of confidential cables leaked by the organization Wikileaks, several of Pakistan’s leading newspapers in Urdu and English including The News, Jang, Nawa-e-Waqt, The Nation and Express Tribune published a story sourced from a wire agency Online that was based on fake Wikileaks cables. The focus of the story was US relations with India, which painted Indian generals in a bad light.

An investigation by The Guardian, which has access to the entire Wikileaks tranche of documents, reveals that Online had made up the story. Express Tribune, The News and Jang have published retractions, and Online, the news agency that published the initial report, has fired its editor, Siddique Sajid. However, the international coverage gained by the incident has cast reporting in Pakistan in a poor light and reinforced the idea of a conspiracy-hungry nation.

In another case of misreporting, electronic and print outlets reported on November 29, 2010 that the Lahore High Court had imposed a stay order on the President giving a pardon to Aasia Bibi. According to the report, Sherry Rehman, MNA-PPP and President of the Jinnah Institute, who had filed a bill in the National Assembly with amendments to the Blasphemy Laws was made a party in the case and served with a notice. However, after a scrutiny of the court records, it transpired that the court had not issued a stay order. Such lapses amount to contempt of court, and the print and electronic media outlets could be served with notices if the court takes action against them.

In another incident, in October 2010, electronic media outlets including Geo News, Aaj TV and others aired a story based on “sources” that the Government of Pakistan was reverting the notification of the appointment of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and other judges of the Supreme Court. The news led to speculation for hours on the electronic media and the issuance of a stay order by the SC against any such move (Dawn). The story turned out to be fake, as the Government denied any such development had taken place. The Supreme Court is currently holding an inquiry into the matter (Aaj News).

Platforms for hate speech

In December 2010, a leading Urdu daily published an editorial in support of a Peshawar cleric’s call to place head money on Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman facing the death penalty for allegedly committing blasphemy. Maulana Yusuf Qureshi, a cleric of the Mohabat Khan mosque in Peshawar, had announced a reward of Rs.500,000 for anyone who would kill Aasia Bibi. The editorial hailed the cleric’s move, stating, “What the government couldn’t do after a court decision, the nation will.”

A recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies highlighted the prevalent trends in the Urdu and English press in Pakistan, noting that columnists in Urdu newspapers were “writing with particular vitriol against external actors like India and the United States”.

Hate speech has no place in a free and accountable press; so far incidents such as these are at a minimum and should be dealt with before the increase in number and magnitude. The far more prevalent trend is that of misinformation and rumor.

The platform of the media that journalists and editors have struggled to keep free of censorship is being abused by a small minority. Concerned journalists and news owners must agree on rules of conduct to prevent such incidents from taking place in the future.

Source: Jinnah Institute



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