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.

Still from a video showing a government funded Hajj facility for journalists.
Matiullah Jan

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."

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In February, Jan aired an hourlong 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.

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