Is NRO reporting fair and factual?

Sep 23rd, 2010 | By | Category: Ethics

Media sings NRO chorusIt is often said that the media has an attention span of about two weeks. Issues come and go from front pages quickly as reporters look for the next big story. This can been seen by the short shelf-life of headlines and analysis about terrorist attacks such as took place in Lahore and Data Darbar. But there are some stories, like the NRO, that become regular reports. We have discussed before the question of how what is reported reflects media priorities, but it is also important to consider how particular issues are discussed and what that says about media priorities also.

Let us take the example of NRO, which has made its way back to the headlines after a short nap. This week has seen headlines like On the chopping block? (Express Tribune), PM seeks list of NRO-beneficiary baboos (The Nation), and Will President Zardari’s name be included in NRO list? (The News International).

Many of these articles are filled with speculation and little factual reporting. For example, the article by Ahmed Noorani, “Will President Zardari’s name be included in NRO list?”, is less a news report than an argument for removing the President.

But more than simply being speculation and predictions, the vast majority of news articles and commentaries are based on a premise that the NRO list is accurate. But is it? Judging by some news reports, that is not decided.

An article that appeared in The News yesterday reminds readers that the original NRO list contained many errors.

The original NRO list that was revealed to the media and later submitted to the Supreme Court by the then state minister for law Afzal Sandhu proved to be full of many mistakes. “Some of names were included with malafide intentions in the list by the NAB officials who owed their positions to General Musharraf’s era,” NAB sources said and added the NAB was now defending cases in the courts, but did not have sufficient grounds to defend its actions.

It is worth mentioning here that Defence Minister Ahmad Mukhtar had to face embarrassment at the hands of some over zealous bureaucrats when his name was put on the exit control list and he had to cancel an official visit to China. Ahmad Mukhtar’s name was also included in the list of NRO beneficiaries but later both the NAB and the Law Ministry admitted that his name was included by mistake.

Pakistan’s Ambassador to US Husain Haqqani’s inclusion in the list is also unique in the sense that the NAB had not filed any reference against him. Investigation agencies never had sufficient basis for prosecution against him, but still his name was included on the basis of an inquiry that was started in 1997. Haqqani was arrested in 1999 on the then accountability czar Saifur Rehman’s orders and kept in detention for more than 70 days.

Haqqani had immediately challenged the inclusion of his name in the list in the Lahore High Court where his writ petition is being heard now. The NAB has admitted in the court that his name was included by mistake by NAB’s legal department.

This should be no surprise, actually. We have already seen acquittals of so-called NRO “beneficiaries” such as Usman Farooqui earlier this year, and the LHC is even asking NAB to show documents explaining why some people were included on the list in the first place.

Despite NAB’s own admission that the NRO list contains inaccuracies and mistakes – even after the national embarrassment caused when Ahmad Mukhtar was refused to leave on an official visit – the media continues to write about the issue as if it were an accepted conclusion that the names included on the list were guilty.

The truth is that the media seems to have a memory problem. This could be because its short attention span makes it forget what it has already reported, or it could be because some reporters are ignoring facts to promote a political agenda. Either way, it is an example of the media repeating past mistakes and not giving proper reporting on an important issue.

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