Friday, May 28, 2010

Embedded with the Taliban? –Dr Mohammad Taqi

Daily Times 
Thursday, May 27, 2010

Many in the Pakistani media used the 2007-2009 lawyers’ movement in Pakistan as an ablution ritual to distance themselves from their fundamentalist past and created a centrist illusion around themselves

“Newspapermen commit murder every day and week and go unpunished. Not that they escape judgment when they murder the King’s English; for that crime they are duly condemned. But day in and day out, they ‘kill stories’ with impunity. Or without criticism they may even ‘bury’ a story that is ‘alive’...” — Dorothy Colburn, ‘Newspaper Nomenclature’, February 1927

A couple of weeks ago an audio
clip purported to be a conversation between a Pakistani media personality and an alleged Taliban leader remained in circulation for days on the Internet. While the Daily Times on May 16, 2010 reported the story and Declan Walsh’s reiteration of it the following day in the British paper The Guardian certainly saved the story on and of this tape from being killed, had it not been for the Daily Times (DT) editorial ‘Shocking revelations’ on May 17, 2010, this story might just have been buried alive.

In an era where massively slanted opinion-based articles are passed around as front-page news leads and opinionated columnists masquerade as news reporters, this paper did a reasonably good job of confining its opinion to the daily’s editorial. The editorial still drew criticism for not getting the other side of the story. However, anyone remotely familiar with the workings of an editorial board would attest to the timely news angle of that particular piece, an objective explanation of the issue and the professional manner of writing that did cover both sides of the story. No doubt that a personality was discussed in the piece, but the paper is under no obligation to solicit that person’s point of view on the material that exists in the public domain.

Indeed this lucid and incisive editorial highlighted several issues and has stirred a serious debate in the media, by the media and for the media. However, the readers and viewers, who, according to the New York Times, are the real employers of the media, are watching very closely, as the media limelight, in this case rather unwanted by some, falls on one of its own.

Over the last 30 years, death has grown in the killing fields of Afghanistan and Pakistan for several journalists like Mansoor Khan of The Muslim and Hayatullah Khan, while many others have reaped steep rewards. The newsgathering conduct of the journalists involved in reporting the Afghan conflict and its spillover into Pakistan, has largely escaped scrutiny.

The rather infamous relationship of embedded journalists with the Western, especially the US, forces in Iraq and Afghanistan has been a subject of serious debate and writing. However, little is known about the relationships of the journalists, covering the other side of the conflict — especially the Taliban — with their sources.

Since Dan Rather dressed up as a mujahideen fighter in 1980, journalists from around the world have gone to various lengths to cultivate their sources and to report on the Pak-Afghan theatre. The recent audiotape controversy raises the question about whether there are journalists who are actually embedded with the Taliban.

In the news business, cultivating a source is an essential skill, bordering on being an art. However, a practitioner of this art must demonstrate to the fullest a sound judgment, self-discipline and professional and personal integrity to avoid even the shadow of impropriety. A short measure of any of these essentials could result in an actual or apparent partiality on the part of the newsperson.

The relationship with the source, like any other human interaction, is like two-way traffic. More likely than not, the source is eager to garner the newsperson’s goodwill for motives which could be altruistic or ulterior. Planted stories and slanted reports can happen — with or without the conscious participation of media persons. There is no reason to believe that most newsmen are not doing their job honestly.

However, many in the Pakistani media used the 2007-2009 lawyers’ movement in Pakistan as an ablution ritual to distance themselves from their fundamentalist past and created a centrist illusion around themselves. Those who were known for their exclusive interviews with jihadist leaders or for deriding secular-nationalist leaders through the state-owned Pakistan Television re-marketed themselves — with great success — as the face of the modern and ‘liberated’ Pakistani media. Simply tracking the careers of these anchors to some 20 years back, however, may swiftly flay their new facade.

If some of these same television talk shows are anything to go by, the media person — whose voice allegedly is on the tape in question — has been dropped like a hot potato by his own colleagues. Some, whose coworkers have used illegal phone tapping to discredit an Urdu journalist in the not-so-distant past, spent no time in distancing themselves from the media personality impugned in the tape affair.

It is said that the media is a mirror that reflects the society it serves. And opportunism not being an unknown commodity in our society, it is imperative to keep a close eye on how the present debate evolves. When the veracity of the impugned tape is confirmed, it would only go to show that this is a seminal event, which points to an affliction that might be rampant in a class of journalists who grew up on a steady diet of the proviso suppressio veri, suggestio falsi (suppression of the truth is the suggestion of falsehood) in the Zia era.

The late C P Scott of The Guardian had aptly noted that, “A newspaper’s primary office is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul, it must see that the supply is not tainted.” There is little doubt that the supply chain of many media outlets is tainted, but its extent remains to be determined.

While the law must take its course in the audiotape matter, the DT editorial has put the Pakistani media houses on the spot about their newsgathering operations; they owe it to the public to come clean.

Dr Mohammad Taqi teaches and practices medicine at the University of Florida and contributes to the think-tanks and Aryana Institute. He can be contacted at

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