Pakistani Journalists in the Hot Seat

By Maheen Ghani

Last month, as the very public scandal of Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s son broke out, not only did the chief justice himself suffer the consequences but everyone felt the backlash – including the media. Conspirators took to Pakistan’s current favourite forum, the social media, to discredit and “expose” journalists who have allegedly taken bribes from the real estate tycoon, Malik Riaz Hussain. Initially, a list of 7 journalists made its rounds across Pakistan via email and SMS messages; subsequently a more extensive list of 19 journalists was released on YouTube. The list included the names of some of the most credible journalists in Pakistan on a Bahria Town letterhead, along with specific amounts of money, the bank account numbers, the money that was transferred to them and/or the plots of land that they allegedly received from Riaz. And as if that were not enough to damage the credibility of the Pakistani media, on June 14 behind-the-scenes footage of Meher Bokhari and Mubasher Lucman’s interview with Riaz on Dunya TV was also released on YouTube. In the 30-minute long video, the two talk show hosts are shown discussing what questions should be asked next, along with other incriminating information such as Lucman demanding, “Give me a villa like you did Hamid Mir.”

The media has come under severe scrutiny and censure from the public following this scandalous “revelation” and questions are being raised about the credibility of some of the most credible journalists in the media. Are some journalists, indeed, on the payroll of characters like Malik Riaz? Or are the political parties ganging up against some of the most critical voices in the media and trying to gag them, or generally running character-assassination campaigns against them to curb freedom of speech. Or alternately, is this the work of the infamous ‘third force?’

Newsline interviewed some of the journalists featured on that list of 19, to get their version of the story.

Mazhar Abbas, Director Current Affairs, Express News:

Q: Who, in your view, has planted this list of 19 journalists, who are rumoured to have taken monetary or other favours from Malik Riaz, on the internet?

A: I have no idea at all, but it’s obviously someone who doesn’t like me or my style of journalism, who hates my ideas and ideology or wants to defame me. I can’t blame just anyone, but I do hope that the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) will respond to my request of constituting a high-powered commission headed by three retired judges, who had not taken oath under the Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO). However, can one actually respond to an unnamed source or an unnamed letter?

Q: How has it damaged your reputation and credibility?

A: It hurt – and it hurt badly. After 32 years of clean journalism, you have to answer these questions. Ironically, those actually involved in corruption were never asked [any questions]. How many people, including journalists, named in the Mehran Bank case have filed a defamation case against Asad Durrani or the ISI? I personally believe that they must become a party in the Asghar Khan case [against the Mehrangate scandal].

But I am glad that those who know me rejected the list before it reached me. These include journalists, leading politicians, lawyers, member of civil society, friends and, above all, my wife and daughters.

Q: What do you plan to do about it?

A: I was the first person who wrote a letter to my organisation, PFUJ, with whom I have been associated for the last 32 years, to probe this matter, punish me and others if found guilty and if not, expose those who tried to malign me and other colleagues. I also wanted to file a case with the Cyber Crime Unit of FIA which was established under the Cyber Crime Ordinance a few years ago but I was told that the Ordinance had lapsed. The PFUJ had also written to the State Bank of Pakistan, regarding the names of the banks that were published, to ask them to clarify their position. So I will wait for the PFUJ report.

Q: Why have journalists on this list gone on the back foot instead of making a noise about it?

A: I can’t say about the others, but I certainly have not. However, so far all concerned parties have denied the accusation. I was told that the PTI boy who had put it on Facebook had regretted it later on. So even if I decide to file a defamation suit there is nobody to file it against. People who have done this should have the moral courage to stand up and bring the evidence forward.

Q: People believe that some of the journalists on this list are on the take. What do you have to say about this?

A: If in doubt, leave it out. First, we as journalists must establish the authenticity of the list before going further.

We all need to raise the issue of “corruption in the media.” We need to define it. We must work on a formula that if anyone – an individual or a group – is found guilty of malpractice, their license must be cancelled (as in the case of the Bar Council, Engineering Council, Pakistan Medical Association).

There are some clear norms. For instance, accepting a bribe in any form is the gravest crime a journalist can commit, which includes accepting plots. Two, journalists must avoid accepting tickets and allowances from the government or private parties. Three, journalists accompanying the president, prime minister or ministers on trips abroad, must be nominated by the editor or head of the channel and his or her company must bear the expenses. Four, journalists must avoid accepting gifts or dinners from their sources. It’s time to get “ethical.”

Asma Shirazi, Anchor for Faisla Aap Ka, Samaa Tv:

Q: Who, in your view, has planted this list of 19 journalists, who are rumoured to have taken monetary or other favours from Malik Riaz, on the internet?

A: It’s quite obvious that ‘the unseen faces’ are the architects of this fake list. It is also a political party whose workers are well-versed with Photoshop manoeuverings. So it’s a co-brand list aiming to dent the image of the media for reasons best known to its sponsors. People who know how to use Photoshop are aware that it’s not that difficult to create a page with Bahria Town’s logo on it and then put anyone’s name on to it. I think there should be a fair investigation on this.

Q: How has it damaged your reputation and credibility?

A: It’s the world where according to Shakespeare, “Fair is foul and foul is fair.” It’s an easy blame game where fingers are pointed without any proof, and I agree that up to a limited extent, it has caused damage. Since we were not serving the purpose of the conspirators, they had no option but to tarnish our credibility. I want to congratulate the conspirators who managed to achieve their target, without presenting a shred of document of proof. But more than that, I think the mediagate scandal of Dunya TV has dented the media’s credibility to a greater extent and people are more concerned about that. I am grateful to my viewers who, despite all this, haven’t doubted my credibility.

Q: What do you propose to do about it?

A: I was on annual leave and out of the country when this issue came forth. But, as soon as I came back, I announced in my first show on June 25, on record, that I would challenge it.

There must be a clear-cut investigation on the issue. The Supreme Court must form an all-powers commission to investigate the matter. I am going to file a petition in the Supreme Court to investigate the said allegations. Furthermore, I am also filing an application with the Public Accounts Committee to take notice of it. I am also filing an application with FIA and the Cyber Crime Wing to identify the ‘hidden faces’ behind this conspiracy.

The Supreme Court should hold an ‘open public trial’ to investigate the allegations, and investigate our assets and accounts to reveal the truth. If we are found guilty, we must be banned from working in the media ever again. Then the Supreme Court must investigate the forces and the motives behind this fake list and expose the whole conspiracy.

Q: Why have journalists on this list gone on the back foot instead of making a noise about it?

A: I am not on the back foot at all. As I said, I was out of the country when this issue was raised, but now I am going to make sure that the issue is investigated and the truth is exposed.

As for journalists in general, they have raised their voices through their own relevant platforms. Yes, they are a bit silent, but it’s not because they are guilty but because the architect of the list has chosen to remain in hiding like a coward.

Q: People believe that some of the journalists on this list are on the take. What do you have to say about this?

A: A few people, if any, on that list may have accepted Malik Riaz’s gifts, but black sheep exist everywhere. So an investigation may help identify who is corrupt and then they must then be taken to task.

Hamid Mir, Anchor for Capital Talk, Geo Television:

Q: Who, in your view, has planted this list of 19 journalists, who are rumoured to have taken monetary or other favours from Malik Riaz, on the internet?

A: The sequence of events seem to suggest that some clever minds tried to mix a bit of truth with some huge lies just to damage the credibility of the media. Allegations of this type first spread in March 2012, when I wrote a column against the then DG ISI, General Ahmad Shuja Pasha. Mubasher Lucman attacked me in some of the shows saying that some anchors were getting paid to spread anti-Pakistan sentiments. In April 2012, Mubasher Lucman began a campaign against me on Twitter and claimed that I received a villa in Dubai. He never mentioned Malik Riaz’s name at the time.

In the first week of June 2012, when Arslan Iftikhar’s case broke in the media, I told the Supreme Court that the timing of the scandal was very intriguing. I told the court that Malik Riaz started leaking information against Arslan Iftikhar at a time when the chief justice was paying a lot of attention to Balochistan and the missing persons case. The same day, somebody by the name of Ali Riaz claimed on Twitter that Hamid Mir was gifted a villa by Malik Riaz in Dubai. Ali Riaz, who is the son of Malik Riaz, immediately clarified that he does not operate any account on Twitter. It was a message for me: I should not point fingers towards the powerful people of the country otherwise someone can start a campaign against me.

The following day, an SMS message was sent accross the country accusing six anchors of corruption. Within days, a list of 19 people was launched on YouTube and then spread on social media. This was done anonymously and no one came forward to take responsibility for it. Past events indicate that this list was launched by some intelligence agency. This is an old method of theirs – to blackmail without disclosing their identity. They mixed up the names of two or three corrupt journalists with those who are not in control of the powerful security establishment of this country. Everybody knows that Marvi Sirmed is not an anchor or a journalist. Why was her name included in that list? Because she is a human rights activist and some of her views are not in keeping with those of the security establishment. Mazhar Abbas and Sana Bucha live in Karachi, but according to that list they have plots in Lahore. Ridiculous. I can tell you that Mazhar Abbas has had plenty of opportunities in his life to make millions but he has always refused. Why would he bow down to a thekedar?

Q: How has the list damaged your reputation and credibility?

A: This is not the first time that I am facing a character-assassination campaign. I have faced similar campaigns several times during my career. Former dictator Pervez Musharraf spread the same kind of disinformation against me and Geo TV in 2007. He used Zaid Hamid against me who declared that I was a CIA agent on a pro-establishment TV channel. When I did some shows on the missing persons in 2010, I was implicated in an audiotape scandal. Some anchors alleged that I was responsible for the murder of a former ISI official, Khalid Khwaja in North Wazirastan. Nobody owned up to this tape but Mubasher Lucman and Talat Hussain conducted shows criticising me. I was told by my colleagues that ISI official, Adnan Nazir, was the mastermind behind this campaign. There was no FIR against me but I faced a big media trial. Finally, nothing was proven in any court of law. A similar campaign was started in December 2011, when some anchors claimed that President Zardari escaped to Dubai and he would not be returning. I said he would come back. When he came back and gave me an interview, some of my colleagues published articles against me in The News and Jang. Another campaign was launched against me on the social media that I had received a bulletproof vehicle from President Zardari.

I have faced many allegations in the last 25 years of my professional life but the people of Pakistan are very intelligent; they know who is acorrupt and who isn’t. Money speaks. And why isn’t Malik Riaz’s money speaking up for me? Why has he declared me his enemy on Dunya TV if I am one of his beneficiaries? I think my viewers and readers trust me and these sort of lies cannot damage my credibility. Yes, people are talking about the credibility of the media, but I am not scared because my hands are clean.

Q: What do you propose to do about it?

A: We should not take it lightly. This is a good opportunity to start a movement for the accountability of the media. We are going to court against Malik Riaz and we will ask the courts to unmask all those journalists, generals, judges, military officers and civil servants who got benefits from Malik Riaz. I am sure the courts will force Malik Riaz to reveal all the names with evidence and then everyone will see the truth.

Q: Why have journalists on this list gone on the back foot instead of making a noise about it?

A: I am not on the back foot but yes, some of my junior colleagues were confused because they were facing this situation for the first time in their careers. In fact, one of them wept in front of me because he lives in a rented house. I told them to file an application in the court of law. They should not worry, if their hands are clean; nothing bad will happen to them. They must understand that somebody is playing with their nerves. It’s a game of nerves. They must not surrender.

Q: People believe that some of the journalists on this list are on the take. What do you have to say about this?

A: Yes, I agree that at least two people on this list are very close to Malik Riaz. You should also write down the names of all those anchors whose names are missing from this list and think about why their names are absent from it. Most of these missing anchors have always been very close to the security establishment. They don’t create trouble for the powerful people and that’s why they are not in trouble.

Sana Bucha, Anchor for Leikin, Geo Television:

Q: Who, in your view, has planted this list of 19 journalists, who are rumoured to have taken monetary or other favours from Malik Riaz, on the internet?

A: It could’ve been Malik Riaz himself, it could’ve been someone he was working with; it could be PTI, it could be PPP. Really speaking, it could be anybody’s game.

Q: How has it damaged your reputation and credibility?

A: It gives people a chance to tell me, ‘you’re going all around the world trying to be credible but this is what you’re really all about.’ So it mars my credibility.

Q: What do you propose to do about it?

A: I am going to the Supreme Court. I have served Bahria town with a notice of defamation and my lawyer is Salman Akram Raja. They (Zahid Bukhari and Bahria) have already denied having written the list, but I don’t want to be clubbed together with the rest of the accused journalists. I guess when you are working with a channel and other anchors are also on that list, you sort of get clubbed together and the channel takes collective responsibility. But me, I do not want to live and die at Geo so I can’t keep waiting for Geo to get their act together and do something about it. I just want to take the Bahria people to court.

Q: Why have journalists on this list gone on the back foot, instead of making a noise about it?

A: I don’t know about the others but I do want to get my name cleared, which is why I am going to take them to court.

Q: People believe that some of the journalists on this list are on the take. What do you have to say about this?

A: I really don’t know. But, the impression we, the media, are giving to the world is that we are not perfect and I think that this message has gone through loud and clear. The Lucman and Bokhari incident is just the icing on the cake. It disgusts me to no end. They all have their own version and it’s kind of a lame story. There are simply no excuses.

Q: Is it true that you have resigned from Geo. Why?

A: Yes, I have resigned from Geo – strictly on principle. Pakistan’s electronic media controls what Pakistanis think; it helps form opinions. And I refuse to share space with Dr Amir Liaquat, who sells piety and religion, and incites extremism through some of his religious views – as witnessed in the past. Geo has, so far, not accepted my resignation.

Nusrat Javed, Anchor for Bolta Pakistan, Aaj Tv:

Q: Who, in your view, has planted this list of 19 journalists, who are rumoured to have taken monetary or other favours from Malik Riaz, on the internet?

A: I believe it is the social media bullies of PTI who have spread this on the internet.

Q: How has it damaged your reputation and credibility?

A: Of course, it has caused a lot of damage to my credibility – in more ways than you can imagine.

Q: What do you propose to do about it?

A: What can I do about a list with no source; a list that no one has taken responsibility for? Unless I know who is behind this, I can’t do much about it, can I?

Q: Why have journalists on this list gone on the back foot instead of making a noise about it?

A: I have not gone on the back foot about this, at all. I can’t speak for the others but I can speak for myself. I have most certainly spoken up, I have appeared on TV shows and written about it in my columns. If anything, I feel like I’m beginning to bore people with just how much I’m talking about it.

Q: People believe that some of the journalists on this list are on the take. What do you have to say about this?

A: If I thought this, I would write about it. Journalists have to be careful. If we make accusations without facts, how can we be [regarded as] responsible journalists? I am a responsible journalist and I can’t accuse without facts.

Arshad Sharif, Bureau Chief, Anchor for Kyun, Dunya Tv:

Q: Who, in your view, has planted this list of 19 journalists, who are rumoured to have taken monetary or other favours from Malik Riaz, on the internet?

A: The fake list was created and put on YouTube to tarnish the reputation and credibility of independent journalists so that people stop believing them as they did at the time of imposition of emergency or other attempts at a soft coup. Activists of a political party, allegedly sponsored by a secret agency, also played a role in sharing it on Twitter and Facebook.

Q: How has it damaged your reputation and credibility?

A: It hasn’t just damaged my credibility, it has damaged the credibility of the entire Pakistani media. All the journalists on that list are in the public eye and people trusted them and believed them, and this list has managed to put doubts in the minds of their viewers.

Q: What do you propose to do about it?

A: I am at a loss to understand what can be done about propaganda campaigns. Encouraged by the response and importance given to the fake list by the media itself, another list is also likely to surface soon to damage the credibility of the entire Pakistani media.

Any government department or the courts can seek and check my assets and account details. If Newsline or any other credible media organisation, such as Dawn or The News, wants to check my assets and account details, I am more than willing to provide all the details to them.

Q: Why have journalists on this list gone on the back foot instead of making a noise about it?

A: Many of the journalists on the fake list have been demanding the accountability of intelligence agencies. It is not surprising that their names appear on an alleged stolen letter pad of Bahria Town, whose owner happens to provide services to intelligence agencies – apart from all his other clients in the corridors of power and political parties.

Q: People believe that some of the journalists on this list are on the take. What do you have to say about this?

A: I am the only journalist who probed and aired programmes about the illegalities of Bahria Town when no one dared to touch Malik Riaz with a barge pole. The two-member judicial commission formed by the Supreme Court should expand its probe and call for all of Bahria Town’s records to learn which media groups and journalists benefited from the largesse of the corporate face of the intelligence agencies in Pakistan. A thorough judicial investigation would reveal a nexus of certain intelligence agencies, political parties, the army, the judiciary and the media with Bahria Town – something which is not likely to happen in the near future.

Published in Newsline Magazine, July, 2012.

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