A report in The News today serves as an excellent example of how the media’s power to shape the way we perceive events can be used to serve a political agenda. According to reporter Sohail Khan, former Senator Azam Swati (PTI) through his counsel Tariq Asad has petitioned the Supreme Court to place the name of President Asif Zardari on the Exit Control List. Why? Because an article in The New York Times said that Zardari could be planning to leave the country after 27th December. Swati’s counsel argued that this raised a question of public importance per Article 184(3).
A few things should be noted here. First is the New York Times article which serves as the basis of Swati’s petition. Here is the part that Swati quotes:
Some Pakistani and Western officials said last week that if Mr. Zardari returned, it could be only for a cameo appearance before Dec. 27, the fourth anniversary of the death of Ms. Bhutto, the two-time former prime minister, in a gun and bomb attack in the city of Rawalpindi, near Islamabad.
After that, Mr. Zardari would probably leave for a long — perhaps permanent — convalescence in London or Dubai, the officials said.
Who are these “Pakistani and Western officials”? Nobody knows. Are they opposition party members or some other kind of agents? Do they have any way of knowing the president’s plans, or is this pure speculation based on thin air and wishful thinking?
Additionally, the same New York Times article also says that “General Kayani told the United States ambassador at the time, Anne W. Patterson, that he “might, however reluctantly,” pressure Mr. Zardari to resign and presumably leave Pakistan”. Would this not result in a question of public importance per Article 184(3) also? Why does Swati selectively quote The New York Times article? Is it because he is using the media to report the facts or to promote a political agenda?
Actually, Azam Swati is not the only one who selectively quotes from the foreign media. In his own petition to the Supreme Court, Swati notes that “the news of NYT has been reported by all the newspapers of Pakistan”, giving it extra importance. But these reports also selectively quote the original article.
The Nation reported the Times story with the headline, ‘Zardaris return cameo appearance’, as if it were a statement of fact and not a speculation attributed to unknown people. And in its report, The Nation conveniently left out the part where Ambassador Patterson claims that Gen Kayani told her he was contemplating a coup.
The News included even less in its report, saying the Times “quoted some Pakistani and Western officials”, but failing to note that nobody knows who these “officials” are. The News even went further and removed every part of the original New York Times story about the military threatening the civilian government and making it seem like the president was thinking of running from the country.
Dawn pared the original report down to little more than just a headline, but at did note the Times’ claim that the Supreme Court was being “pushed by the Army” to investigate the president.
This was reported the same way in Urdu papers also. Jang carried the story as a brief news piece suggesting there was reason to believe the president might leave. Nawa-i-Waqt carried the brief version of the story as well, and Express even added a little touch of its own by reporting that “according to New York Times report, 27 pakistani officials and western ‘diplomats’ have said that his return is temporary” – none of which actually appears in the New York Times story.
In other words, there is a petition before the Supreme Court that is based on media reports that selectively summarise a foreign media report that paraphrases the speculation of unidentified people. As a result, the people’s perception of events may have been manipulated, and what they believe is reality may actually be a carefully designed version of reality that better serves a political end. Ironically, the foreign media group at the foundation of this case is one that is routinely criticised for “publishing anti-Pakistani reports” that are “planted to derail a country like Pakistan” when the claims it reports are viewed less favourably.
The public interest is not defined by political ends, but by knowing the truth. This is a shared responsibility of both media and judiciary. If one fails, it can cause the other to fail also. Reporting rumours and innuendo is not journalism, and legal decisions based on such rumours and innuendo is not justice. If the media fails to do its job responsibly, it can have disastrous consequences.