An article by Issam Ahmed for The Christian Science Monitor yesterday rocked the journalism community as the reporter discussed payments made to two Pakistani journalists from an American nonprofit that receives funding from the US State Department. Two reactions dominated discussion – those on the right saw an American propaganda machine unmasked and those on the left asked why the same scrutiny is not given to the funding behind pro-jihadi propaganda that is prevalent in Pakistan. However there is another point which we hope Mr Ahmed’s piece will open to discussion: The culture of ‘lifafa journalism’ that has taken root in Pakistani media.
According to Issam Ahmed’s investigative reporting, two Pakistani media groups have reporters on staff that received payments from an American media nonprofit, but did not disclose this fact.
Neither of the two media organizations, Express News and Dunya News, discloses that their reporters are paid by the nonprofit America Abroad Media (AAM) on their websites or in the reports filed by their correspondents. Though the journalists have worked under the auspices of AAM since February, AAM only made their links to the news organizations known on their website Wednesday, after being contacted by the Monitor.
First it should be noted that sensational claims being spread that Pakistani journalists or media groups are on secret US government payroll are not supported by Mr Ahmed’s report. The nonprofit America Abroad Media (AAM) reported that it has paid the journalists has done many programmes that are meant to introduce American audiences to issues in Pakistan. Actually, a few months ago AAM produced a 5 part series about the growing role of Islamic charities in the world and even reported a piece about Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s flood relief work that many would consider sympathetic to the group. If this is an American propaganda machine, it is certainly a strange one.
Second, it should also be noted that Issam Ahmed actually did report on extremism in Pakistani media. His piece of 23rd June 2010, ‘What’s on Pakistan TV talk shows? Extremists.’ takes a very critical look at Pakistan’s own version of sensational “FOX News” style reporting.
While [Zaid] Hamid generally reserves his venom for what he perceives as Pakistan’s external enemies, others, like televangelist Amir Liaquat Hussain openly call for violence against Pakistan’s minorities. In a show recorded in 2008, the Karachi based religious-scholar, who held the post of minister of state for religious affairs in the Musharraf regime, said it was incumbent on all true-believers to kill Ahmadis.
Within two days, a prominent Ahmadi doctor and an Ahmadi rice trader were shot dead in Sindh province.
Though Hussain’s membership in the secular MQM political party was terminated, no further action was taken against him or his channel, Geo, owned by Pakistan’s largest media group.
So it is that AAM is not a conspiracy by the US government and Issam Ahmed has reported on extremist media. Rather than let this be another headline used to score cheap political points, let us turn to the more pressing issue which is that a culture of ‘lifafa journalism’ that has taken root in the media.
That many journalists are on payrolls other than from the media groups they are supposed to work for is an open secret, if anyone even bothers to pretend it is any type of secret anymore. In his book, Web of Censorship the respected journalist and leader of of the freedom of press movement in the 1990s, Zamir Niazi, noted that since the Ayub Khan regime agencies began recruiting and paying journalists to promote an establishment line. Is this practice a thing of the past? Consider that after PNS Mehran attack in May, ISPR held a private ‘briefing’ with 20 journalists, many whose names you will easily recognise.
- Raheem Ullah Yousafzai
- Mujeeb Ur Rehman Shami
- Haroon Ur Raheed (columnist)
- Talat Hussain
- Zahid Hussain (Wall Street Journal)
- Ijaz Haider
- Moeed Peerzada
- Qatreena Hussain
- Mehar Bokhari
- Sana Bucha
- Hamid Mir
- Javed Ch.
- Saleem Safi
- Arshad Sarif
- Kashif Abbasi
- Ibsaar Aalam
- Mubashir Luqman
- Nadeem Malik
- Rana Mubashir
- Haroon ur Rasheed (BBC)
Two of the journalists that attended the briefing by DG ISI even work for foreign media groups Wall Street Journal and BBC.
And it’s not just agencies that are known for recruiting journalists. Politicians have even taken the practice to a new level. Dawn News recently reported that one politician could not find envelopes large enough, so he opened an entire store for journalists only that treats reporters to VIP protocols.
NGOs and private companies, too, are known to provide envelopes to journalists who are invited to cover their latest products and developments. One journalist recently wrote that some small payment has come to be expected by many journalists.
While it’s unfortunate that this culture exists in our profession, what’s even more disgraceful, I feel, is that many among us actually demand it. It seems as though these journalists hang a price tag, and not a press card, around their necks. Like good moneychangers, they offer competitive rates in exchange for writing one sided reports.
Meanwhile, journalists continue to battle media owners in court over wage schemes that have been fixed since 1996. Even these wages are not always paid on time. In the approach of the Eid holiday, Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) issued an ultimatum to media owners demanding payment of salaries owed since 4 or 6 months.
Two things need to happen. First, media owners need to pay employees fair wages for their work. This will help to prevent the lure of the ever present envelope by making journalists financially secure.
The second thing is improved transparency. It is not uncommon for journalists to take freelance work or to receive some benefit such as a trip to a conference or a fellowship at a think tank. This additional income should not be considered as suspect as long as it is declared openly. In the present case reported in Issam Ahmed’s article, it seems that the entire problem could have been avoided if the media groups had disclosed the agreements and payments from AAM openly.
We should not accept ‘Everyone is doing it’ as an excuse. We should hear it as a call for reform.