Journalists: Are we driven by facts or egos?

 ICFJ Alumni  Group Photo at Media Summit  held  in Islamabad on Feb 1,2,2013. Photo taken by Alumni fell

My inner critic is always haunting me with this burning question: am I objective and unbiased as a journalist?

I found the answer in the first week of February, at a media summit organized by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) in Islamabad. More than 80 journalists from all over Pakistan, who are alumni of ICFJ attended this summit. Speakers shared their views on important subjects, like the state of media in Pakistan, and how the USA and Pakistan see each other through media. It also gave us a chance to get to know each other.For me, the most interesting part was a session where journalists quizzed the speakers. That’s where my burning question was answered.

From (L-R)Muhammad Ziauddin, executive editor express tribune, Muhammad Malik, senior anchor Dunya TV, Rana Jawad Islamabad bureau chief Geo TV. Photo taken by ICFJ Alumni fellow
A journalist issued a challenge to Rana Jawed, bureau chief of Islamabad Private Television. Why had the station “fanned” the controversy over a provocative YouTube film about Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) by repeating the clip dozens of times, and calling upon government to ban YouTube? And why did the station later boast – via breaking news – that it was responsible for the YouTube ban? Rana Jawad replied, but the journalist wasn’t satisfied. Neither was I.

Zia-u-ddin, executive editor of Express Tribune, joined the discussion. He explained that television is part of mass media, so its priority is set by people’s emotions and expectations. If you ignore this reality they will switch to another channel. This made sense, but the journalist was still not satisfied.

Enter Muhammad Malick, editor of The News. His view was that no one is perfect in the media business, so we should learn from each other and develop professionalism throughout the industry.

But the journalist was still unwilling to let the issue drop. Later, I learned that he works for a rival television station. The episode made me realize how difficult it is for journalists to move from fixed angles. We stick to our position at any cost.

When another journalist – this time from Quetta – raised his hand to ask a question I gave him all my attention. I was keen to learn about the situation in Quetta, and the ongoing violence which is related to ethnicity and Baloch separatists.
But it was not to be.

“I am impressed by you, Mr Zia-u-ddin,” the journalist began. “You challenged the dictators. You did an excellent job during the Zia regime (and so on), and my question is: should I continue in print or switch over to television?”
I wasn’t expecting such a personal question. Neither was Zia-u-uddin. As soon as he sensed that the issue was superficial he leaned back in his chair and smilingly accepted the admiration. I am a hundred percent sure he wasn’t interested to hear flattery in such a public place. It’s well-known that he is a serious journalist.
This made me realize how important it is for us to ask questions on behalf of the people we serve, instead of just following our own needs. And, as the session also showed, journalists need to understand the difference between making comments and asking well-designed questions. Good questions generate news. The ability to ask good questions is the essence of journalism.

A journalist from FATA fell into the trap of confusing comment with question. “We are thankful to Pakistan for military operations, we are thankful to USA for drone attacks and we are thankful to the Taliban for destroying schools because you all taught us the importance of education,” he began. Personally, I didn’t like this attitude. 

But then the journalist redeemed himself with a strong question to Hamid Mir. Why, he asked, couldn’t he come to cover tribal issues? Hamid Mir explained that he is not allowed to enter tribal areas. He described how his DVR was snatched and smashed by Law Enforcement Agencies (LEA) while he was covering a drone attack.
At this, another journalist from Khyber PakhtunKhwa (KPK) pointed out that Hamid Mir had interviewed Osama Bin Laden in Tora Bora, Afghanistan. Why, then, couldn’t he cover issues in tribal areas?
I liked the question but not the challenging tone. Later, the KPK journalist told me that he had been “infuriated” by the “disrespectful” way in which Hamid Mir had responded to his colleague from FATA. Emotion had spurred him to join the debate. See? Egos are driving our journalism.
An ICFJ Alumni, Gharieda Farooq is asking a question. Photo taken by Alumni Fellow

I thought seminars were for listening and analyzing. But this one turned into a television talk show. It seemed some people were desperate to pull others down, just so they could enhance their own reputations.

Another interesting observation: those who were keen to ask many questions were not equally keen to report the answers. Yes, they were free to ask but they didn’t feel the need to write. Surely then, they had lost sight of journalism’s aim: to pass on information to the people, through traditional and social media.
So what did I learn from this summit?
Most importantly, that journalists should be clear about what they want to ask, and should have the skill to design their questions coherently and simply. Our questions must be challenging, but we should ask them in a polite way that shows we’re interested in information – not defamation.

Why Is Critical Media Important For Pakistan's Tribal Region?

The 18th amendment has abolished the “concurrent list,” and gives much more provincial autonomy than is now available to the provinces. If the provinces still have technical problems in having powers to establish local radio, they should demand this from federal government to inform marginalized communities across the country.
Picture source: BLIP.TV

In Peshawar, I met a radio talk show listener Haji Noor Zaman, who is 60 years old and is displaced from Khyber Agency due to operation against militants. I asked: Do you still listen to radio? He said yes, he is listening but only to news bulletins from Radio Deewa.

Radio Deewa is U.S. government-sponsored radio. I asked what’s new. He said America has diverted its cannon facing Baluchistan and has built up its human rights case against Pakistan.

I was surprised to hear this sort of comment from a person, who is illiterate and once had a hashish shop at Khyber Agency. I asked in the same breath, that if they are making human rights case against our country, then why do you listen to it? His answer was that no local radio is providing this sort of critical news and he can’t change the dial as long as they are providing critical local information.

I got his thinking. He wanted to listen to critical media, in the form of radio broadcasting. Readers of newspapers and viewers of the television are luckier than radio listeners in Pakistan because they can read and watch critical media. But the people of FATA don’t have access to critical mainstream media, and using the Internet for information is out of the question as most of the region has no electricity and telephone connections.

One couldn’t do private news business in tribal areas of Pakistan because of laws that prohibit independent local broadcasting. That is the reason the people don’t know much about their surroundings and even they don’t know about most of their rights: rights to good education, rights to good health, rights to freedom of expression, rights to freedom of assembly, rights to legal counseling and so on.

In the absence of local broadcasting, people rely on U.S-run radio services, which offer local and regional information in the Pashtu language. The entire FATA could tell you what happens to Muslims in Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan because they have access to global information through radio networks but they couldn’t tell you what is happening to them because a critical local media doesn’t exist.

A local reporter working for an English newspaper got a phone call from a person who was a native of Khyber Agency, telling him that his daughter’s polio case has been confirmed. After taking details, the reporter asked why you want to tell this story to people. The caller’s response was quite interesting. He wanted to tell the public to accept polio drops – otherwise they too would lose their daughters.

But to me, his choice of medium looks inappropriate, because he was about to convey his message to English readers, who already understand its importance. Ideally, this story should be told to people through radio, which is popular in the border region – and would be broadcast in their own language. Unfortunately, that father doesn’t call the local government radio station because it seemed he has no faith in that radio station.

Local government executives, who benefit profitably from border region, have no interest in encouraging the masses to speak in a community voice against injustice. The executives were allowed by the government to control, instead of serve, the people. The principle was left to them by British Raj and they continued with it to serve themselves instead of people. In fact, the Mullah Radio had grabbed people’s attention as they were critical of system injustices and offered solution to these injustices in the form of Islamic Sharia. We have seen how the Mullah has used radio for his political advantage in Swat and FATA.

The local government in FATA and Swat didn’t see radio as important in reaching the public as the Mullah did. Even today, local government officials still don’t prefer radio to newspapers, because it’s easier to show a newspaper to bosses sitting in Islamabad or Peshawar. Such officials often prefer to read newspapers rather than listen to the radio, which is regarded as a cheap medium for the masses. The irony is that local government has yet to establish radio in Swat, which was devastated by Mullah Radio.

The local media can lure back audiences from foreign radio if they were allowed to play that critical role. They would need to realize that they have competition from abroad, and they have to win local people’s hearts and minds through critical media. They would need to incorporate more important topics such as militancy, security, politics and good governance into the agenda. Today our thin Government and Commercial agency-run local radio lacks all these, even in Pakistan.

Good local radio journalism can’t be established in the region until and unless government ensures freedom and protection, with easy procedure and less expensive licenses. The federal government needs to understand that people have right to expression – to criticize policies – if they are not benefiting the citizens.

The 18th amendment has abolished the “concurrent list,” and gives much more provincial autonomy than is now available to the provinces. If the provinces still have technical problems in having powers to establish local radio, they should demand this from federal government to inform marginalized communities across the country.

Theoretically, everyone agrees that radio can play a very important role in governance and in alleviating systematic injustices. But in practice, they don’t want to give voice to impoverished communities. If we couldn’t establish and empower local radios, then listeners like Haji Noor Zaman can’t change the dial to listen local radio.