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.

The Chessboard of Pakistani Journalism

By Awais SaleemFeatured image

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.