Pakistani Media: Dreams and Realities

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By Awais Saleem

Who doesn’t like fairytales? A world where there are no problems, everything is hunky-dory and there is a messiah to take care of all our worries. But fairytales are also short-lived, and hardly ever exist in real life. Realities are complex, in our face, and mostly not very enjoyable whether we like that or not. The same appears to be happening in the aftermath of the New York Times story about the alleged wrongdoings of Axact.

The management of Axact-backed television channel BOL projected it to be the dream venture of all journalists, where they will be taken care of in every possible manner. Starting from a hefty paycheck, ideal working conditions and a complete revamp of their lifestyles, they could name anything and aspire to have it in their grasp. This immediately resonated with most of the working journalists in Pakistan’s media industry where conditions have been far from ideal. This is despite the steady improvements in the last decade or so when private television channels started broadcasting. Still, there are many organizations where journalists are suffering from issues like low or delayed wages, job insecurity, workplace pressures, long duty hours, and lack of a proper service structure. The rumours about Axact’s alleged dealings in fake degrees and pornographic material were shrugged aside either because the offers were too tempting to let go or because the senior names of the industry who joined BOL in the beginning were considered credible enough to take the plunge.

The dream lasted a good couple of years but the smooth-sailing ship got caught up in tidal waves when the interior ministry of Pakistan, following the NYT scoop, launched a formal investigation into the affairs of Axact. The first reaction offered by the coterie of senior journalists employed by BOL was that the organization was innocent until proven guilty. Nobody questioned that argument although the follow-up stories in the NYT, together with the onslaught from rival media houses, kept building pressure and the top brass of BOL soon caved in, culminating in their resignation a couple of days later.

The six bigwigs, who have tendered their resignations with immediate effect, citing “ethical considerations” and the “call of conscience”, include President, Editor-in-Chief, and Co-founder, Kamran Khan, President and CEO, Azhar Abbas, Senior Executive Vice President, Iftikhar Ahmad, and Executive Vice Presidents, Nusrat Javeed, Asma Sherazi and Wajahat Saeed Khan. All these were faces of BOL and hardly anybody was expecting them to take such a hasty decision. Despite being shareholders of the company, they did so nevertheless and hell has broken loose ever since. The majority of the critique coming their way is on the grounds that they left their colleagues in the lurch at a difficult time. Others are questioning as to why these eminent names of the media industry didn’t exercise due diligence at the time of joining this new venture? Emotions are running high and not many are looking at the troubling questions dispassionately.

To start with, this senior lot really should have stood with their colleagues at a testing time. Kamran Khan and Azhar Abbas particularly were instrumental in persuading a majority of the other staffers to switch affiliation from their respective organizations to BOL. To depart without thinking about them, and take refuge behind conscience, is a lame attempt to become a hero, which they are anything but. They are at best a self-serving lot who joined BOL for their vested interests and resigned to resurrect whatever, if at all, was left of it. However, did those who followed them and joined BOL calculate the pros and cons before doing so? One follows somebody blindly mostly when the credibility and integrity of the person in question is beyond any question. In the case of Azhar Abbas (who earlier left GEO for DAWN before returning to GEO leaving his team behind) and Kamran Khan (alleged to be affiliated with several dubious characters), I have my doubts. As for the other quartet who put in their papers, the less said, the better.

Those asking why these gentlemen didn’t question their employers about their sources of funding perhaps live in a utopian world. How many of them, currently working for different media organization, cross-questioned their employers about the legitimacy of their wealth when they were negotiating the job. Can they go ahead and raise this question to their current employers as well? If not, then they should immediately stop being hypocrites. Since 2001, when private television channels were granted licenses, other than the big business houses, high-profile land grabbers, bank loan defaulters, tax evaders, and convicted criminals are also owning news television stations in Pakistan in an attempt to launder their ill-gotten wealth as well as to gain access to the power corridors through their media outlets. Such grey areas in the personal integrity and business practices of television channel owners, their covert political affiliations, direct influence on the editorial content and erosion of the institution of the editor (replacing it by a hybrid owner-editor) has hardly raised a red flag, barring a few valiant voices, for Pakistan’s journalist community during the last decade or so.

The owners of these media outlets are now facing collective criticism from several journalists for allegedly conspiring to bring BOL down even before its formal launch. In doing so, these critics are conveniently forgetting that each new media outlet did bring some improvement in the life of Pakistani journalists, particularly those affiliated with television stations. Things have certainly taken a leap for the better since they were 10 years ago. The Chairman of BOL, Shoaib Shaikh promised to take it to an altogether different level, but it always sounded too good to be true. Several other high-profile names like Talat Hussain, Amir Maten, Rauf Klasra, Najam Sethi, and Muneeb Farooq etc., to name a few, did find the offers from BOL rather perplexing and didn’t join the ranks. Obviously, these folks were not just thinking in terms of money but also about the allied, and mostly disconcerting, factors.

Having switched jobs thrice and in rejecting a few others during a journalism career spanning almost 15 years, I can relate to the thought process involved in such a crucial decision. The chances of success are always 50-50 (like a toss) because there can be no guarantees of anything. All employers promise the moon at the time of hiring and suffer from memory lapse soon afterwards. The onus of weighing the risks involved is almost always squarely on the employee concerned. It must be said that BOL, and the people associated with it, are turning out to be no different. The dust on the illusion they created is slowly starting to settle down. Most of those who are rooting for Shoaib Shaikh to lead a media revolution that will upstage current media owners (and organizations) perhaps don’t realize that no single organization can turn-around the fate of the industry which has already reached a saturation point in terms of the advertising revenue and the number of television channels that it can sustain.

Another question pertains to the immediate future of BOL. It will most likely withstand the existing challenging phase and will start formal operations in due course as 1st Ramadan has already been announced as the launch date. Most media workers are standing by it and that’s the right spirit at this time. A majority of the workers joined in with good intentions for better prospects and shouldn’t be faulted for doing so. With the spotlight in all Pakistani primetime news shows on Axact, BOL has received some free publicity already, as being controversial can often turn out to be a recipe for success in Pakistan. However, the ratio of positives and negatives will be no different for this new entity than they are in other organizations. If not the existing problems, there might be a new set of problems but to think of it as an ideal paradise, away from the maddening crowd, is akin to burying one’s head in the sand. The reports of a spat between Shoaib Shaikh and Azhar Abbas after the latter announced his resignation have surfaced already, which should open some starry eyes. The first signing after the string of departures is of Mubasher Luqman, which is enough to conclude which way the elusive “revolution” is heading. No media baron is different in this industry. What’s different is just the manner of their gamesmanship. For any businessman, a worker is just a tool to be used when needed, and to be dispensed with when not.

Any industry rises and falls together, and mostly represents the overall fabric of a society. Inflated expectations and jackpots either don’t materialize or don’t last long and the bubble has to burst sooner or later. Therefore, better accept the uncomfortable realities, start owning responsibility for your actions, and push for change collectively (with the help of your colleagues in different media organizations and representative organizations) from within instead of waiting for messiahs to turn around your individual fortunes in a jiffy. It simply doesn’t happen in the real world. What sounds implausible and fishy turns out that way more often than not. This Axact scandal is a reality-check for the entire media industry and hope it is taken in that spirit. The current “us versus them” mentality in the media is just a zero-sum game in which ‘saints’ are no saint and ‘satans’ are no satan. After every happy ending in a fairytale, we all have to return, albeit reluctantly, to the real world anyways.

Meanwhile, the interior ministry of Pakistan’s ongoing investigations into the allegations against Axact should be conducted on merit and without any external pressures. Shoaib Shaikh’s strategy to use BOL as the defense-shield for Axact hasn’t worked so far. Both the accused as well the investigators would do well to keep both the sister organizations separate, as there is no allegation per se on BOL as yet. Sadly, if Pakistan’s track record of high-profile inquiries is any indication, the outcome of this new exercise can be anybody’s guess. The prevailing situation in Pakistan’s media industry does not inspire any confidence that things will change for the better (not just financially but also vis-à-vis credibility and overall structure) anytime soon. However, if at all there has to be any concrete and credible investigation into the funding sources of BOL, it needs to rope in all other media outlets as well in order to make all of them come clean about their respective ownership structures and funding trail. The benchmarks should be the same in each case. Otherwise, the way things are going downhill, this so-called boom, being touted by many as the highpoint of the media industry in the country, will not take long to bust.

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