Tweeting Birds, Judiciary and Accountability

Jun 6th, 2012 | By | Category: Conspiracy Theories, Ethics

When the Chief Justice took suo motu notice of allegations that his son Arsalan is involved in a corruption scandal, several high-profile journalists commented that the action was “a direct result of Twitter”. We will refrain from comment about the likelihood that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is deciding the docket based on social media, but we do think that this raises serious ethical questions about the behavior of some journalists in their use of social media.

We have noticed for some time a group of journalists who regularly carry out public discussions with one another on the popular social media website Twitter. What caught our attention was the way many of their discussions involved serious allegations against individuals – including allegations of criminal conduct. These discussion often involve the allusion to “information” from “sources” that proves that such-and-such a person has committed some crime.

We were surprised, then, that these public accusations of criminal acts were not followed up with either a full report exposing the crimes nor any reports to the proper authorities so that the accused could be held accountable for their actions. Rather, there were comments posted on Twitter, sometimes over the course of days or even weeks, that contained rumour and innuendo but no verifiable facts.

The latest episode centers on Twitter discussions of allegations against the son of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. As noted above, some journalists claimed that this was a result of Twitter discussions.

Shaheen Sehbai told the Sydney Morning Herald that the case against Arsalan is part of a conspiracy against the Chief Justice.

Shaheen Sehbai, group editor of The News, said the case appeared to be a conspiracy to discredit or dislodge the Chief Justice. ”It was a big plan which is almost implemented and is now in the final stage. According to my information, these people have made videos of the Chief Justice’s son taking bribes and spending money provided to him.”

Speaking to Dr Manzur Ejaz on Washington Beat, Sehabi took his claim further and said the judiciary is being targeted by Pakistan People’s Party. Sehbai’s colleague at Jang Group Ahmad Noorani went even further and posted on Twitter that Riaz Malik “was behind all this & trapped & bribed [the Chief Justice’s] son”.

This is a serious allegation, and one that should not be made lightly. It also raises an important question – if Shaheen Sehbai has information about a conspiracy to frame Arsalan in order to discredit the Chief Justice, does he not have a professional obligation to publish this information? Why has it not appeared in his own newspaper? More to the point, does he not have an ethical or legal obligation to file a FIR against the alleged plotters? Instead, we simply get gossip 140 characters at a time.

On 6th June, the Supreme Court published a press release saying that “various TV talk shows reported the allegation of some business deal between Malik Riaz Hussain (Business Tycoon) and Dr. Arsalaan Iftikhar son of Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, Chief Justice of Pakistan, with a view to influence the judicial process”. Since the Supreme Court acknowledges that this group of TV talk show hosts has been reporting this allegation, should they not be compelled to appear before the Court to explain the evidence behind their reports which sparked the case in the first place?

In 2010, media reports caused the Supreme Court to another emergency hearing in the Supreme Court also based on allegations that a conspiracy was being hatched against the judiciary. That episode resulted in what Farrukh Khan Pitafi termed Media’s Moment of Shame. Will this shameful episode be repeated? Or will those making public accusations of crime and conspiracy be brought before the court to show their evidence so that the case can be closed once and for all? The credibility of the national media may be at stake.

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