This is the first question that people ask every time a new media outlet is launched. WHO is behind it is the next query? This basically reflects several concerns that lurk in the public’s mind. Is it an evangelist, a tycoon, a politician, a local intelligence outfit or even a foreign agency promoting its propaganda, business and political interests? Worse, is it a politico-business combo harnessing the power of the media to protect its vested interests? After all, there are many potential Berlusconis in our midst, building dubious media empires. We declare at the outset that we are none of the above.
We are a small team supervised by some of the most professional and respected journalist volunteers of this country. Most of our limited means have also been pooled in by our friends in the media. The average age of our reporters is 23 and they represent the 65 percent youth of Pakistan. Brimming with energy and fresh ideas, they feel that the older generation may have failed them on many counts. Incessant violence, the perpetual bombardment of hate material by gung-ho religious fanatics, the everyday killings of innocent people by terrorists and the stories of corruption and bad governance do not make them the proud Pakistanis that they want to be. They want the elders to listen to them for a change. They come with a clean slate and are less indoctrinated in ramshackle ideologies and polarized politics.
We have ensured that the young team is groomed and supervised by professional journalists - an ideal combination of raw vigour and experience. Respected members of our journalist clan have volunteered to help in our cause - some by donating computers, gadgets or furniture, others by sparing time for editing and still others by sharing their experience with the cubs. Many prestigious columnists are writing for us without a fee. Our effort has generated a very enthusiastic response from our worthy community. We are overwhelmed by this extraordinary support.
Why this support? We see it as the idealism of journalists committed to their profession, independent journalists who don’t want to see its standards deteriorating by the day.
Owners have become principal decision-makers in virtually all news organisations. Imagine the frustration of a professional Director News who has the option to either leave his job or abide by the nakedly tainted dictates of his (there is not a single ‘her’ Director News) owner. The few professional TV anchors, which we have, are forced to compete with fakes thrust upon us by owners, intelligence agencies and what not.
It’s not just their crooked and immature understanding of issues that makes the societal discourse skewed and shallow. Not even the sensationalism and hysterical programming that keeps the public on a perpetual edge. More worrying are the stories of corruption- anchors selling content, becoming partisan for material gains and even receiving bribery in the name of issuing public messages. Anchors have been caught red-handed violating basic media ethics and yet they have been retained by owners or rehired by others. Dubious property moguls have been found bribing journalists. We hear more disturbing news about political parties throwing billions of rupees to purchase the media in the upcoming elections. It can be done easily because the owners and their henchmen in media are political actors themselves and would compete with each other to become king-makers.
Behind them are interest groups with their eye fixed on profits. The sugar mafia is represented by the likes of Jahangir Tareen, Hamayun Akhtar and the families ofAsif Zardari,Nawaz Sharif and Chaudhary Shujaat Hussain who are also the most prominent policy-makers. Individuals controlling cartels of energy, cars and food shape policies meant to protect consumers from their monopolies. A nexus of businessmen-politicians-media owners and an assortment of players, who can only be described as criminals, rule the roost.
Media has to be seen in this broader context. It has been turned into a lynchpin for this cartelization of Pakistan in connivance with vulture multinationals. The local franchise of Newsweek magazine, for instance, is owned by a person who is one of the biggest energy tycoons and has been named by the Supreme Court in the multi-billion rental power projects (RPP) scam as an accused. Another convict who was dubiously pardoned by a person no less than President Zardari, and whose son is overseeing the multi-billion dollar 3-G license allocation, is launching a new television channel on the eve of elections. He was earlier named as the model of corruption on NAB’s website.
The owner of the biggest media group is also considered as one of the richest men in Pakistan and was described by a stock-trading giant as a “billionaire in dollars” on his own channel. He has never shown any qualms about pursuing his business and political agendas blatantly. The second biggest media empire is owned by an industrial group and the third on the list also has vast business and political interests. All of them are known to interfere actively in editorial matters. The owner of the biggest group literally decides the headlines late at night and the editors get to read them only in the morning. The institution of the Editor and the sanctity of the newsroom stand severely violated, barring a single exception – Dawn Newspaper. But Dawn TV has fallen in line by hiring the most controversial female anchor.
Journalists’ unions and organisations have become weak and inconsequential. Owners meet the high and mighty as the representatives of media and governments oblige them with huge favours. Foreign-funded NGOs in the name of South Asian media freedom pose as the mouthpiece of journalists and corrupt them by taking them on foreign junkets and local conferences in five-star hotels complete with lavish dinners with top government officials and other power players. This suits everybody in the power club.
In the process, the decades-long struggle of journalists for the freedom of expression and the protection of fundamental rights and democracy has been sold out. Media in Pakistan has been finally hijacked by media-owners and vested interests. Professional journalists get the flak and have to face the public wrath against such charlatans. It is sad and frustrating.
It is under these bizarre circumstances that we have taken upon ourselves the task of becoming The Spokesman of the public. We have learnt from experience that with big money come big agendas. We believe that we can pursue truth and introduce quality, even through a small venture. We may not have state-of-the-art printing and production facilities or the glossy centre-folds with expensive fashion models but we believe the ultimate test is the content - the written word and its credibility.
The Spokesman is a modest effort towards a vision that is not modest at all: to bring about a positive change in journalism.