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The ‘WhatsApp Journalists’ Of Pakistan

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Misbah Azam writes about the state of journalism in Pakistan where self censorship reigns supreme. Investigative journalism here means peddling half truths and toeing the line of the powers-that-be.

Investigative journalism, according to one definition, is a form of journalism in which journalists/reporters deeply investigate a single topic, such as serious crimes, political corruption, frauds, corporate wrongdoings, governments’ agencies cover-up, conspiracy theories, social issues, etc. Journalists may have to spend months or even years of research, investigation, information collection, and then on the basis of the investigation and research, prepare reports and bring the truth in public knowledge.
Practitioners sometimes use the terms ‘watchdog reporting’ or ‘accountability reporting’. According to the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN), investigative journalism definitions vary among professional groups. There are broad understandings and a wide range of acceptance of the major parameters of investigative journalism.
One such definition is in-depth, and systematic research and then dredging up of secrets. The originality in the research involves wide-ranging use of public records, data and insiders’ information. However, due to the severe competition among the media outlets, it is seen that largely, media persons rely on weak and speculative information which is largely based on the perceptions and reporters’ and their employers’ biases and agendas.

In countries like Pakistan, there is a sizeable number of journalists who present their analysis and reports after going through all necessary checks. However, a large number pf journalists here are pseudo-investigative journalists (the irony is that lots of them are not even journalists). They rely on messages from government functionaries and/or agencies. They can be referred to as “WhatsApp journalists” – since most instructions are circulated via Whatsapp.

We have all heard the story about the 6 blind men and the elephant by a famous American poet, John Godfrey Saxe, who re-narrated the Indian parable “The Blind Men and the Elephant”. The six blind men were brought next to an elephant and they were asked to describe it by touching and feeling it. Because they only touched one part of the elephant, they came up with different descriptions – ranging from the tree (leg), wall (side) and spear (tusk), to fan (ear), rope (tail) and snake (trunk) – and as a consequence, they didn’t agree on any one description.
For each of them, what they touched and felt (their perception) was the correct description of the “object”. The idea of reminding the story is to explain how incorrect the stories, based on the media persons’ prejudice and perceptions can be.

On August 25, 2015, an article was published on a news site World News Daily Report, claiming that National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed Osama bin Laden was living a luxurious life in the Bahamas as a guest of American Central Investigative Agency (CIA). ARY News and some other reporters and media persons started telling this story as “breaking news”.
The ARY channel had two newscasters kept on repeating the “news” published in “American Magazine”. Had they checked Wikipedia to verify this information, they would have found out that the World News Daily Report (WNDR) is a satirical fake-news website, which follows the old-school Tabloid-styled faux-journalism. This is a classic example of subjectivity.

Media houses all over the world work as a company. Just like any company which may be in the business of selling any commodity like food products, computer chips, automobiles, etc as their products and make profit, the media houses sell news, op-eds, and stories as their products. Just like every other company, media houses also have cultures, mission statements, and visions about their goals and milestones. So the question is if the investigations are conducted to find the truth, or it is to strengthen their perceptions and prejudices towards certain issues to prove that their views towards that course are correct, and then to advertise the “product” to get more commercials and make more money.

Journalists who file such agenda-driven stories may not be incorrect or they lie in their stories, but they take up only those parts of the fact which will be consistent with their media policies. They investigate those, stretch some truths here, now and then, hide or conveniently ignore some “unwanted” facts which may contradict the debate, and publish the story.

During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, several famous journalists and media persons in the corporate-controlled US media, cheerled the invasion to fulfill the agendas of their commercial interests, but the same champions and “guardians” of the “support invasion” theory, turned to the lead anti-war activists when the situation on the ground in Iraq turned against what was planned and boasted by the US and UK leaderships.
Billy Don Moyers, a well known American journalist and political commentator, had a documentary on the Public Broadcasting Corporation (PBS), in which he exposed such “Platos” of the journalist community in the US media.

In Pakistan, most media owners try not to tangle their horns with security institutions. They take instructions from them and comply. Any journalist who tries to break the “rule”, is either removed from the TV screens or in some cases put in life-threatening situations like Saleem Shahzad, Wali Khan Babar et al. Others like Raza Rumi, Hamid Mir and more, were attacked, beaten and fired on by “unknown terrorists”, who are rarely caught. A large number of top TV journalists like Nusrat Javed, Syed Talat Hussain either lost their jobs or voluntarily decided to quit their networks.

Steven Butler, the head of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) Asia program, who was recently denied entry into Pakistan and deported, said, “Pakistan’s ‘Invisible Censor Board’ has gone into overdrive lately — blocking news broadcasts, forcing journalists off social media, banning opposition leaders from television, running fake viral campaigns threatening journalists”.

The media is considered the eyes of the common people which ought to keep eyes on the governments and agencies which are paid huge salaries by the taxpayers of the countries. Democracy demands the media keep their eyes on the power instead of getting dictation from them and defend their points of view in their editorial comments.
Investigation of every point of view is necessary, however.

Journalism, based on perceptions and prejudices misleads the people and drives the masses towards disasters. Once the political analysts and journalists decide to be the mouthpieces of agencies and start defending actions of governments like their “paid disciples”, they only damage their credibility as objective analysts.

In Pakistan, which is considered among the most dangerous places for the journalists, where the military spokesperson openly threatens the journalists in press conferences by showing “unlikeable” lot of journalists, the undeclared censorship is creating a generation of compliant and submissive journalists. However, there are still some strong voices who are standing up to the pressure and fighting for the right of free speech.

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