First, a disclaimer: this is an opinion piece, and facts of the legal case are not going to cloud my opinion about how the media handled it. I am talking about the ‘Ayyan Ali case’ wherein the Pakistani super model was arrested with US $506,000 that she was taking out of the country, when the allowed amount was just US$10,000. The ‘extra’ money was discovered during a search of her luggage by the Airport Security Force, who presented her before the Customs judge, who sent her on a 14 day judicial remand.
So far so good. Now we knew that this news would elicit a greater than normal interest because of her celebrity status. But the manner in which the media went ballistic on this issue has shamed all those who still try to hold fast to the almost dying concept of responsible and ethical journalism.
Suddenly court reporting became entertainment news, pandering to the latent craving for titillation of those in the newsroom. And their concerted efforts were successful in extending it to the viewers, and the cycle of ‘jo bikta hai wohee dikhta hai’ (showing what the viewers demand) started from which no one was willing to get off.
The lurid commentary, the lewd songs, the C-grade Indian teleplay-like camera angles, each time she was brought to court from jail, became part of breaking news ad nauseum. The innuendoes, conjecture, the uncorroborated accusations, and worst of all, the moral policing witnessed on all forms of media, be it print, electronic, or social media, lowered the lowest common denominator to a new depth.
And this was a depth of despair for all those who watched aghast when the principles of journalism were thrown away with abandon. A veteran journalist, in his writing on this very topic, had reminded those of us on the wrong side of half a century how media exploded when famous poet Mustafa Zaidi was murdered in the 1960s, and how at the time too, a model, Shahnaz, implicated in the case, became the news and all else became irrelevant.
Her face was splashed all over the front pages and this was not done just by what qualified as the ragsheets but by all major mainstream newspapers. However, that was in the days of print, which had a very limited reach. Now, in this day and age of the electronic media, the manner in which Ayyan Ali’s news was broadcast, it reached a far greater number of people, further influencing and corrupting their taste in what is appropriate content.
And it is not just about corrupting the taste of the audiences by making a serious criminal case into a circus, it is about influencing the judiciary through a moral policing of the accused.
Was Ayyan Ali the first person caught for alleged currency smuggling? Did the media play judge jury and executioner in the cases of the other accused? Were they trying to re-enact the Pakistani version of the O. J Simpson trial and the drama associated with it?
What kind of people decide to ask their reporters to cover court cases like that. Have they been exposed to the ethics of journalism and responsible coverage? Do they know anything about libel laws? Or even about the PEMRA laws. Some are from the media that claims to have its own code of conduct. If this was a display of adherence to that code of conduct, then probably the question we should be asking should extend beyond the journalistic credentials — about their moral standing.
Yes, I know people roll their eyes at the mention of PEMRA, because of the reactive manner in which it operates; unless the word comes to tighten screws on the media from the powers-that-be get their feathers ruffled. But the manner in which it became open season is a dangerous sign because if this is accepted as kosher, then there will be no boundaries.
Boundaries like sticking to facts; like differentiating between accused and convicted — like doing some fact checking that there were others who had tried to take out bigger amounts out of the country, had been nabbed and bailed out immediately at the prescribed amount of Rs50,000.
There is a need to teach media the difference between exoneration from charges and being out on bail. It does not mean the one on bail can immediately jump it because the accused is not on the ECL.
Keeping aside the legality of the case, the fact is that the judge had to finally grant bail after four long months because the prosecution was not able to present a case. She was the only one of such accused who had been put in jail for such a long time, and each time she was brought to court, it was as if she was on catwalk. Her make up, her clothes etc. were more under discussion than the merits of the case.
Who will teach these reporters that this is not how a court case is reported. Or maybe it is! Here it seems that the reporters and camera persons are deliberately being told that is what they want.
One look at the memes — doctored images and picture from Ayyan’s past were dragged out with gusto — on that most unregulated of spaces — the social media. Things like whether she was pregnant, how many months, who possibly sired the child, and why it didn’t show, she must have had an abortion, were all publicly discussed. Amazing was the manner in which these things were not even preceded by a ‘maybe’. Everything was a certainity.
Maybe, if Ayyan is smart, she can take all these people to the cleaners through the libel laws that exist. Since the media houses are not going to give a lesson to their staff into the principles of reporting, her case might just deliver a message!
This article was published with the title Depth of despair in the June 26, 2015 issue of The News on Sunday.