By Awais Saleem
To say that the exposé done by the New York Times on a Pakistan-based IT company, Axact’s shady business practices has caused ripples in the Pakistani media industry would be an understatement. The way it has divided opinions among the working journalists, be it senior or those still learning the ropes, is even more startling.
The NYT story had detailed alleged involvement of Axact in running an international network selling fake online diplomas and degrees through sleek websites of ghost foreign schools and universities. However, among the circles having anything to do with the Pakistani media, most of the content in the NYT story about Axact has already been common knowledge. The fact that the NYT has done a story quoting sources has only led credence to these rumors and made it more sensational. The other part of the allegations against Axact that they also host pornographic websites has not even been mentioned by the Times. Axact emerged as a known name in Pakistan’s media fraternity in mid-2013 when they announced plans to bankroll a new television channel, BOL. They offered unprecedented salaries and perks to the aspiring employees and subsequently hired several eminent journalists. At times, the figures simply didn’t add up and their claims about revolutionizing Pakistan’s media landscape sounded too good to be true. Still, the surreal nature of these promises and the rumors about questionable funding behind this new entity hardly deterred the journalists, including some very senior and celebrated names of Pakistani journalism, from joining this new company. It defies logic that these journalists got duped during the hiring process and didn’t know of the accusation on Axact when Pakistan’s media landscape was abuzz with these rumors about shades of grey. For many of them, this was not the first time because hardly any new player in Pakistan’s television industry, since it was deregulated in 2001, could be absolved of having an entirely above-board financial record.
Soon after the Axact scandal broke in the media, a war of words broke out between the journalists from both sides (BOL and other organizations) in the mainstream as well as social media. The severity with which they attacked each other was not only surprising but also disturbing. In more than 15 years of being an active journalist before taking a break to return to school, I have never seen such polarization in the Pakistani media. Both sides are nitpicking, showing selective perception, and speaking only half-truths to justify their own positions. The battle lines have been drawn based on the affiliation with different media organizations, leaving no room for objectivity.
Those who have already joined BOL have accused their former colleagues in other media organizations of siding with their owners to spread misconceptions about the new venture (BOL) to block its potential success. Somehow, they conveniently forgot that a few weeks ago, they were themselves employed by the very same media organizations that they were now criticizing. What is happening with BOL now has already happened with Dunya and Geo but these protectors of media;s integrity and independence were silent at that time for obvious reasons. The question is that if the already existing organizations were so bad and the owners were such Satans, did these noble souls question those practices when they were part of that set-up? If the answer is no, then does it mean that the ethics and morals are dependent on the “doctrine of necessity” and material interests?
On the other hand, those journalists who have not (or not yet) joined BOL have been critical of their colleagues who moved on and joined BOL for better prospects as somebody who sold their souls to an allegedly corrupt organization (Axact) only for a few bucks. Could these torch-bearers of uprightness and clean reputation look inwards and say with certainty that everything about their own organization and the respective managements is absolutely transparent? Moreover, how many of them never changed a job for higher salaries or better working conditions? If they cannot answer these questions, then they have no right to point fingers at those who can’t be faulted for availing the opportunities coming their way.
Most of the journalists in Pakistan have knowingly and willingly joined these new channels left, right and center during the last decade or so. For a majority of them, the increasing zeros on the paycheck after years of professional struggles and financial strife have provided enough justification to fall for this bargain. They have taken solace in the fact that their professional working wasn’t getting affected by whatever reputation their organizations’ owners had otherwise. There was a general acknowledgment of what was wrong at least in private conversations, if not very openly. The last thing I expected was to witness both sides to defend these wrongdoings so vehemently. It is clear that both sides are sitting in glass houses and throwing stones on each other, taking a self-righteous position. In trying to take potshots at each other, they have conveniently forgotten the skeletons in their own closet.
There are no two opinions that journalists in Pakistan have endured several decades of tough professional and financial circumstances and have every right to good earnings and lifestyle. But becoming part of an alleged scam, and getting blinded by the digits on the paychecks, does not provide any justification whatsoever to shy away from the troubling questions staring everybody associated with the Pakistani media in the face. If it does happen to be of no priority for anybody, then that person is clearly in the wrong profession. If the “so what” argument being presented by the journalists predominantly on the social media on the grounds that “none of the earlier media owners has clean hands” is to be bought, then what would they say about the police officials who were being offered more money by Taliban to switch sides at the height of counter-terrorism operation in Pakistan?
If the accusations have been raised on Axact management, it is true that they are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Simultaneously, it is also true that the accusations are of very serious nature and rubbishing them or making claims of innocence are also a bit premature. Being a journalist is much more than being somebody’s employee (and mouthpiece) to ensure taking a fat paycheck back home every month. The last thing a journalist is expected to do is to act as an irrational activist of a political party but that has started happening increasingly in Pakistan. Driven primarily by financial rewards, all ethical and professional journalistic considerations have been put on the backburner and both sides are equally at fault in doing so. That’s certainly a far more disturbing big picture that merits attention, debate and some honest soul-searching on the part of all those involved.
The reality of employment opportunities and working conditions available for Pakistani journalists at the moment is not all black and white but has definite shades of grey about it. They can either (at least) acknowledge and get on with it or take a clear stand against it based on nothing but strict principles. The latter option is easier said than done. But some honesty from both sides would do no harm. In this small industry, nothing remains hidden forever and there are no permanent friends and foes. Let journalism retain some sanctity as a profession and allow each other to remain professional colleagues instead of making it resemble a chessboard. Remember, at the end of the game, the king and the pawns go into the same box.