By Christopher Beam
Posted Friday, May 20, 2011
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan—Last November, 30 of Pakistan’s most influential journalists boarded a plane bound for Saudi Arabia. The occasion was the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims are expected to perform at least once in their lifetimes, if they can afford it. On this trip, however, money wasn’t a problem: The Pakistani government picked up the tab.
For months, the story of the government-sponsored hajj went unreported. The fact that reporters were accepting gifts from the government hardly qualified as news. Plus, reporters in Pakistan have an unspoken rule, a kind of omerta: You don’t write about other reporters.
Unless you’re Matiullah Jan. Jan, an anchor for Dawn News in Islamabad, launched a new show in January called Apna Gareban—the name means "under our collar," an Urdu idiom that translates as "our own underbelly"—in which Jan investigates the conduct of his fellow journalists. On the show, he acts as a kind of one-man ombudsman for all of Pakistan, badgering reporters, ambushing them Bill O’Reilly-style, and guilt-tripping them on air for their alleged misdeeds—behavior unheard of in the Pakistani media. "This is a very revolutionary thing," says Mehmal Sarfraz, op-ed editor at the Daily Times in Lahore. "Somebody had to do it."
In February, Jan aired an hour long report outing the journalists who visited Mecca on the government’s dime. Many of the reporters defended themselves. One said God had called him to Mecca, and he had to obey, despite having gone on hajj twice before. "God called you three times?" Jan asked, incredulous. Others said they didn’t know where the funds had come from, and they never bothered to ask. Pakistan’s supreme court soon ordered the reporters to pay back the money, though some have appealed the decision.
The issue wasn’t necessarily that journalists had taken a trip that was paid for by the government; journalists, Pakistani and otherwise, do that all the time. (This article, in fact, was made possible by the East-West Center, which organized a trip to Pakistan funded by the U.S. State Department.) The trip to Mecca wasn’t a reporting trip—some journalists even brought their families—nor was it acknowledged publicly until Jan brought the issue to light.
The growth of the Pakistani media over the last decade has exacerbated journalistic corruption. Newspapers flourished in the 1980s and ’90s, but there was only one cable TV channel, the state-run Pakistani Television. That changed in 2003, when Gen. Pervez Musharraf, frustrated that Pakistanis were getting much of their news from India, relaxed the ban on cable channels, or "electronic media." The medium boomed, as Pakistan went from one cable TV station to dozens in 2011.
As the sector has grown, so has its power. "The media is more unrestrained now than ever," says Najam Sethi, a columnist and the editor of the Friday Times in Lahore. "We can get away with murder." Sensationalism abounds, fact-checking is a foreign concept for many outlets, and TV reporters who have rushed in to fill the media vacuum often have no journalistic background. The agency that regulates cable channels, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, prohibits content that is "defamatory or knowingly false," but it rarely takes action.
Many Pakistani journalists accept gifts from politicians, presumably in exchange for favorable coverage. Less blatant forms of corruption—caving to threats from militant groups after a suicide attack by replacing the word "died" with "was martyred," for example—are common. In the most egregious cases, "reporters" aren’t reporters at all but simply businessmen with press cards who use their access to the press to help friends, punish enemies, and blackmail law enforcement. If you’re pulled over by a traffic cop and you have a press card, says Jan, you don’t have to pay.
Yet the media rarely critiques itself. Only one Pakistani newspaper, the Express Tribune, has hired an ombudsman, and his mandate is limited to that paper. He doesn’t write a column, either—he just handles reader complaints in-house. Media "navel-gazing" may have a bad name in the United States, but the Pakistani media’s belly could use some inspection.
That was Jan’s thinking when he created Apna Gareban. The purpose was to turn the same critical eye on journalists that they turn on politicians. Jan has worked for several years as a court reporter for Dawn News in Islamabad. "In court, we talk about right and wrong, black and white, accountability, justice, equality of treatment before the law," he says. But those terms are almost never used in conversations about the press. "All of the sickness of society is being scrutinized by the media, but the media is not being held accountable itself." Apna Gareban became the first major TV program to dig into the backgrounds of influential journalists, essentially making Jan the ombudsman for all of Pakistan.
In the first episode, Jan visits the federal government’s Press Information Department, where publishers—and often reporters themselves—go to solicit government ads. (A big chunk of the ads that appear in Pakistani newspapers and on TV are paid for by the government, usually to promote new projects or to congratulate officials for their achievements.) There, he interrogates a reporter who’s asking for ads. "If they don’t give you ads, do you publish stories against them?" says Jan. "Well, they do give us ads," says the reporter, "so why should we say anything against them?"
The transactional relationship between the government and the press is a recurring theme. In one episode, Jan examines the 290 million rupee ($3.4 million) "secret fund" set aside by the Information Ministry for journalists. The fund covers everything from buying ads in newspapers to providing medical care for reporters to paying for their daughters’ weddings. All this is to the good, former Information Secretary Ashfaq Gondal tells Jan: "There is no one to look out for the welfare of these journalists." Jan plays along. "These are great deeds," he says. "So why would you keep this a secret?" Gondal responds that the purpose of the information ministry is "to establish a sort of goodwill within the populace so that the populace tilts toward progress and keeps up with the times." What better way to "establish goodwill" than to buy off the press?
Another episode focuses on the awarding of lavish government housing to top-tier Pakistani journalists at cheap rates. Jan kicks off the program by reading the names of the 24 journalists, displaying their pictures, and describing their homes and how much they pay in rent. When confronted, one reporter insists it’s his "right" to get preferential treatment. Another compares his situation to that of a BBC reporter, whose salary is subsidized by the government. "Do BBC’s journalists get premium apartments from their rulers?" asks Jan. "I don’t have that information," says the reporter. "Forget information," says Jan, "they don’t get any, you know this."
Jan’s interview technique, a one-two combo of logic and shame, drives his subjects into contortions. At first, the well-known anchor Asma Shirazi defends her decision to go on the government-funded hajj by saying she was misled about its funding. Then she says that even if she knew it was publicly funded, she would have gone anyway. Then she accuses Jan of failing to go after the "real big criminals," like journalists who take land as bribes. Finally she agrees to pay back the money.
Jan is more than happy to play populist demagogue, despite being the son of a retired Army colonel and living in a relatively comfortable neighborhood of Islamabad. "The taxpayers are hungry for food and thirsting for water," he tells Shirazi, "scrounging for every cent they can get, and instead you spent hundreds of thousands of rupees to go on a free ride to the pilgrimage."
His crusade hasn’t exactly endeared him to his colleagues. "Watching fellow journalists squirm" is "painful," writes Steve Manuel, who worked at Pakistani newspapers for 25 years and founded the website Journalism Pakistan. "There are other ways to expose such people … tattling on fellow journalists is not one of them." Manuel also argues that Jan could be more critical of his bosses. "Why not also highlight the corruption practiced and encouraged by big media houses including Dawn?"
Jan says he’s been careful to investigate his friends, too. And he’s paid a price. For one episode, Jan invited prominent columnist and longtime friend Rauf Klasra onto the show to explain why he lives in a high-end government residence. "I told him at the start of the show, we’re not friends in the studio—I’m a journalist and you’re a journalist," says Jan. During the interview, Klasra turned the tables on Jan by producing documents that accused the CEO of Dawn Media Group, Hameed Haroon, of corruption. Jan invited Haroon onto the show on the spot, but he never came. Jan and Klasra’s friendship hasn’t recovered.
The most profound moments of Jan’s program are not his attacks on the media, but what they reveal about broader systemic problems in Pakistan. When Jan asks a judge why he doesn’t punish media organizations that fail to pay their journalists—not uncommon in Pakistan—the judge blames the system. "I really want to prosecute them," the judge says, and salary issues fall squarely within his jurisdiction. But "there’s always a reason or a loophole that the defendant exploits to circumvent penalization." Even when the judge orders someone to appear in court, they often don’t show up. "I tell the police to summon the person to court, and they come and tell me the person is unavailable. What am I to do?"
In April, Apna Gareban was shut down after 12 episodes. The final straw was an investigation into the conduct of a reporter at Dawn News, Jan’s employer, who was making money on the side by selling goods from a kiosk provided by the government—a clear conflict of interest. "We knew [Apna Gareban] was going to be an experiment," says Jan, who has returned to reporting on the courts full time. "I’m reconciled to the fact that there were pressures on the organization from the highest levels of the media industry." The journalists who’d been exposed were angry, and media owners were worried they’d be next. "They looked in the mirror and saw what they looked like," says Jan. "Then they decided to break the mirrors instead of washing their own faces."