How one TV reporter tried to reveal the underbelly of the Pakistani media.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
May 20 2011 4:17 PM

The Ombudsman

How one TV reporter tried to reveal the underbelly of the Pakistani media.

(Continued from Page 1)

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."

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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. "[W]hy 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."

Translations by Haroon Butt.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.