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Focus deadlines, not red lines

Democracy without transparency is meaningless, and this is exactly what has happened during successive governments

Focus deadlines, not red lines
As I write this piece, there are reports of a complete media blackout of the events unfolding in Indian-held Kashmir. Over the past four days, no newspaper, Urdu or English, has been published in Srinagar. Journalists don’t even have access to internet, WhatsApp and other modes of communication to send in their stories on the situation in held Kashmir. The world’s biggest democracy has deprived media basic access to information.

Right to know is a fundamental right of every citizen, and it can only be guaranteed if people have access to information. One of the main reasons for democracy not flourishing in Pakistan, and for the country being constantly faced with issues of governance and corruption in the public sector, has been the denial of right to information. Democracy without transparency is meaningless, and this is exactly what has happened during successive civilian governments.

When I joined this profession over 39 years ago, there was question of unhindered access to information. The press was under censorship. In the late 1980s and the early 1990s, pressure started mounting on governments to give people access to information. Later, even international donors like the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and other global financial institutions pushed Pakistan to make laws in this regard following reports of massive corruption in the public sector.

One of my strengths in journalism, particularly in reporting, has been my ‘contacts’, who help me acquire the documents I need in the line of duty. Quite frequently I have been provided access to ‘sensitive’ material. The principle to keep in mind is the trust between a reporter and his source. One has to protect not only one’s sources but also ensure one’s credibility as a journalist. Apologies for misreporting are not unheard of in the media but they certainly damage the credentials of journalists and reputation of newspapers and media channels. This is besides the danger of litigation.

Had national press had access to information we would not have waited for Hamoodur Rehman Commission report to be leaked abroad. Till this day we do not know what happened to successive commissions constituted on high-profile matters like the Kargil conflict and General Zia ul Haq’s mysterious plane crash on August 17, 1988. Lack of access to public documents and information has resulted in disinformation, allowing governments to hide facts from their own people.

While there had been stories in newspapers regarding corruption and narcotics, involving big guns and ruling elites in the 1980s and the 1990s, some of which were blamed for fall of governments, the Panama Leaks in 2016 will go down in history as the most serious journalistic work done globally to expose financial corruption by the ruling elite around the world. It was such a solid investigation by journalists that it led to upheavals in many countries, heads of states in some countries had to resign since they could not challenge the authenticity of the leaks.

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his family also faced this crisis. Sharif was subsequently disqualified and convicted. His appeal against the conviction is due for a hearing in September.

But it remains a mystery as to what happened to hundreds of others named in the list from Pakistan; why did the government and state institutions brush these cases under the rug?

Coming back to the issue of why democracy could not flourish in this country and what really gave rise to massive corruption in the public sector, the answer lies in successive governments engaging in corrupt practices on a massive scale. They never wanted people to be aware of their right to access basic information.

I still remember how I got access to some of the documents and audio tapes in the Asghar Khan case.

I have always regretted my then editor’s decision at Herald to withhold this story. She wanted me to get some more corroboration. Later, another colleague got wind of the story and broke it. We only got credit for a follow up. My editor had not been sure whether the story could stand in a court despite the documents and audio recording in my possession of a conversation between the late Younus Habib and some politicians.

In a country with limited access to information, a journalist uses every means to get the news out. At times, journalists are faced with difficulties in getting access to files, particularly those related to big financial scams, or issues linked to national security.

In 1989, I did a story on massive corruption in the Sindh Information Department. I was served a legal notice. My editor asked if I would stand by my story. I did. Subsequently, I was advised that I needed more documents to support my story. My sources in the department helped me get the required papers.

In the mid 1980s, it was Senator Prof. Khursheed Ahmad of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) who became the first legislator to highlight the issue in the Senate. He also moved a bill for right to information. Later, during the interim government of Meraj Khalid, his law minister Justice Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim brought an improved draft ordinance. Finally, it was in 2002, during Musharraf’s government that the law was enacted under pressure from the World Bank, and later the International Monetary Fund.

Later, Transparency International also expressed concern over lack of access to information and failure of the government to introduce Right to Information Act. Thanks to some journalists, led by Hamid Mir, a petition in the Supreme Court calling for abolition of ‘secret funds’ of ministries, particularly the Information Ministry which used money to corrupt journalists, was filed. As a result of the said petition, funds of over a dozen ministries, including the Information Ministry, were abolished. My investigation into the matter revealed that funds had been used for spreading disinformation. We now have laws providing the right to information but there is very little awareness of this among the people. At the government level, there is a lack of serious effort to generate that awareness.

Governments still hide information and create bureaucratic hurdles to making governance more transparent and accessible.

With advance modes of information now available, people now have access to a lot more information and disinformation. At times, mainstream media also uses it. But there is an element of risk involved when you pick information from the internet or WhatsApp, and use it without verification.

Investigative journalists rarely rely on right-to-information laws to access files, decisions or even minutes of official meetings. They rely instead on their ‘contacts’ to seek access to concerned documents.

The Pakistanis media have produced some good investigative journalists including Umer Cheema, Ansar Abbasi and Rauf Klasra. In the past, we had had others, including the late Idrees Bakhtiar and Kamran Khan.

It is very important for journalists to stand by their stories failing this they lose their credibility. Therefore, it is important that a story be backed by evidence.

Recently, we have seen a different trend in investigative TV journalism. It mostly revolves around crime shows – some of which get good ratings as well but never prove a game changer.

‘Contacts’ provide one firsthand ‘tips‘. If a ‘contact’ is at the right place at the right time, one gets lucky. In the early 1980s, I got a tip that the government had ordered a probe into report that Libya and Iraq were recruiting ‘mercenaries’ from Pakistan, and two religious parties were involved. When I contacted these parties they denied involvement. But from the Home Department, I got a document signed by the then Home Secretary. The story caused quite a stir and some of the party leaders threatened me. I met chiefs of the parties and convinced them that neither was the story biased nor based on hearsay. I also told them that challenging the story would only embarrass them as I had the documents to back up my story.

I was also part of an international award-winning cover story for the monthly NewsLine. It was on the ‘underworld’. Through my contact I got access to one of the key players, who at that time was in jail. One of the stories on the involvement of the ‘underworld’ in match-fixing also put my life in danger. Some ‘underworld’ guys approached me and wanted to know the source that provided me the story, and warned me of consequences of not cooperating with them. In the next edition I gave another story on the subject. They never returned as they got the message.

Over the last decade, there has been a revolt against corruption and bad governance all over the world. The simple definition of corruption at the highest level is ‘use of public money for private gains’. Our record of governance and transparency has been very poor under both civilian and military rule. Can we make our system more transparent? If not, our claims to democracy would remain meaningless.

Mazhar Abbas

mazhar abbas
The author is a senior journalist and former secretary general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists.

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