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Story behind the story

Pakistani media must learn lessons from the Trump-CNN row

Story behind the story
Trump and Acosta: Bigger news than the mid-term polls.

As I watched on TV the duel between the US President Donald Trump and CNN journalist Jim Acosta, I was reminded of the harsh conversation between former military dictator General Ziaul Haq and Dawn correspondent and president Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) late Nisar Osmani about three decades ago. Haq threatened Osmani in a harsh tone and said, “If I closed all the newspapers and hang a few of the protesting journalists, no one would dare to speak.”

CNN has gone to the court for violating the US constitution’s guarantee of freedom of expression in the first amendment. In his time, Nisar Osmani had to go to the prison and newspapers faced unprecedented censorship.

If a ruler gets rude and angry over a question, it means the journalist has succeeded and so has journalism. A journalist’s question often establishes his or her credentials. Incidents of media clashes, such as the one between Trump and Acosta at the White House on Nov 7, often overshadow the main purpose of press conferences. In this particular row, for instance, the president is clearly the loser, as the event has become a bigger news than the mid-term polls for which the press conference was initially called.

Press conferences, interviews and events coverage require skill, knowledge and style. An interviewer’s tone is as important as his or her question. A journalist can ask tough questions and render the interviewee speechless without being rude. Rightly so, the CNN has not questioned the expression used by Trump, rather they have taken him to court for depriving a journalist of the right to freedom of the press under the First Amendment.

There are lessons for the Pakistani media to learn from the White House incident. Presently, it is facing one of the biggest challenges of survival and professionalism — as ‘fake’ takes over ‘facts’. Perhaps, time has also arrived to redefine and restructure the media. A media house can’t be run like a textile or a garment factory. It must be treated as an industry of professional journalists; paratroopers cannot make it hostage to their own private agendas.

For the first time, the sanctity of Pakistan’s most prestigious Karachi Press Club was breached on Nov 8, when a group of plainclothes armed men of a law enforcement agency stormed and searched the club without a search warrant or warning. On the same day, they picked up a journalist Nasrullah Khan Chaudhry of daily Nai Baat from outside his house for his alleged connection with an outlawed group. A joint investigation team (JIT) has been constituted to investigate his case.

The list of media persecution is long: Nine newspapers and their editors and owners are facing cases under the Anti-Terrorism Act in Quetta for publishing statements of outlawed groups. The court has rejected their plea, that press releases were published under duress as outlawed groups threatened to kill them if they refused to print their statement. Strange, indeed, that the state could not provide security to the newspaper against such threats.

Journalism today is a dangerous profession. Those who live by the pen or give opinion on TV risk dying by the gun. In such situations, agenda driven journalism only adds to risk factors. Veteran journalists whose opinion must be valued are pushed back by half-baked mediapersons who know how to act on screen but lack in the basics of journalism. To start with, does any media house in Pakistan follow a code of ethics of journalism? Is there a clear definition of journalist? Newspapers or TV channels without editor or director news are like cars driven by trained drivers. Further, how many newspapers, magazines and TV news channels recruit on merit? Are they tested on their understanding of current affairs and reporting? There is no professional training and guidelines for safety.

The kind of pressures the Pakistani media is facing today is a violation of Article 19, (Freedom of the Press) and Article 19-A (Access to Information). But none of the Pakistani media outlets or organisations has challenged violations of the two clauses. Today, a reporter is facing a case of high treason along with two ex-premiers for interviewing one of them, Nawaz Sharif.

Alongside, mediapersons feel challenged by economic pressures, like delays in salaries and their legal and economic rights under Newspapers Employees (Condition of Service) Act, 1973. The industry has been taken over completely by paratroopers.

I fear a new information order may be out within the first 100-days of the Imran Khan government that may merge the print and electronic media regulatory authority into one media regulatory authority. It’s likely the government will increase control through independent regulators.

It is good that an organisation like CNN stood by its journalist, Jim Acosta, like Dawn backed Nisar Osmani many years ago and Cyril Almeida more recently and The News supported Hamid Mir, Umer Cheema and Ahmad Noorani in their days of trouble.

Media organisations need to support and back their journalists but, at the same time, ensure they do not get carried away — as it is generally believed journalists should not become part of the news because their prime responsibility is to get the news first, and get it right.

Today, we need someone like Nisar Osmani, who countered Ziaul Haq’s treat with “Mr President, you can ban the media, you can silence our voice but death is something which is not in your hand.” Zia was shocked. Osmani Sahib was a fighter and a professional journalist, so he tried to diffuse the situation.

This is also a lesson for CNN and global media not to become hostage to ‘fake news’ syndrome. It is also time the US media, including CNN, tell the world how they had collectively promoted the biggest fake news of all time, the story on weapons of mass destruction. Only one US newspaper publicly admitted that they were “used”. While truth is the first casualty in wars, in Iraq’s case it became a casualty even before the war started. Rather, it became instrumental in killing millions.

“The bell is tolling for each of us, and each of us deserves its ring. Each of us was an oppressor when others were hounding a colleague. Even though we did not deliver a single blow, we still supported you — by our names, by our authority, by our silent presence.” With these words of admonition and defiance, Georgi Vladimov, a Russian dissident writer, closed his open letter of resignation from the Writers Union of the then USSR, becoming thereby the first Soviet author to expel the organisation officially from his creative life.

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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