How the Axact Scandal Changed Pakistan's Media

05/23/2015 03:53 pm ET | Updated May 23, 2016

Nobody resigns in Pakistan. People generally blame others for their failures. When reporters asked a former railway minister after a big train accident if he would resign from his job, "Why should I resign?" he asked, "I was not the train driver." Resignations from people in the position of authority make big headlines, but today, journalists in Pakistan are not reporting about such resignations. They are, on the contrary, making headlines with unprecedented en mass resignations from their lucrative jobs at an upcoming news channel after finding out that their employer was actually making illegal money by, according to one newspaper, "running the world's largest fake diploma mill."

When the Times reported on May 17th about the fake degree empire run by the CEO of BOL News Network from Karachi, the company immediately resisted the charges by describing it as a conspiracy by a foreign newspaper to defame Pakistan. Some of the star journalists who had newly joined the network emerged as the defenders of the new channel against the NYT report on broadcast and social media. The story itself was backed with so much evidence that many senior journalists soon began to realize that it was no longer possible for them to defend the network's owner and the wealth he had accumulated through illegal practices. There was already growing pressure from some journalists on those who had joined BOL to demonstrate journalistic honesty and quit the network.

After much speculation, the first big resignation came Saturday evening when
Kamran Khan, the president and editor-in-chief (co-founder) of BOL Group, went on Twitter and announced his disassociation with the network. Mr. Khan is a renowned investigative journalist who has covered Pakistan's security and intelligence affairs for nearly three decades for publications as respectable as the Washington Post. When he quit the show Today With Kamran Khan, one of Pakistan's most widely watched late night political shows on Geo News to join BOL, he made news even in the country's most respected English newspaper, the Dawn. When BBC Urdu invited him last week to speak about the scandal surrounding Axact, the parent company of BOL, he appeared unconfident and unpersuasive in his responses. "Would BOL investigate the Axact scandal if it existed today," asked veteran journalist Shafi Naqi Jamie. "Of course we would," said Mr. Khan but without mentioning the "how" part of it. The BBC interview was probably the place where he may have realized how hard it had become to defend the illegal practices of his new bosses.

"[The] charges against Axact [are] far from proven in court but my conscience [is] not letting me continue. I've decided to disassociate from Bol immediately," he Tweeted Saturday night. Mr. Khan was the first one to make headlines for what many called his courageous and professionally correct decision but he was not the only one to do so. Within a few hours, BOL's media empire appeared collapsing when several other prominent journalists also announced their resignations. They all cited journalistic integrity, commitment to the truth and opposition to corruption as factors that influenced their decisions although they were resisting all kinds of pressure to quit the network until a week ago.

Never before in its media history has Pakistan experienced such a large scale of resignations from top journalists based on the investigations of a foreign newspaper. Some jaded skeptical citizens are complaining why their own secret services and the media organizations are unable to dig out stories as big as the one reported by the NYT. Journalists can be blamed for their inefficiencies but they must be commended for this stance they have taken in the wake of the scandal surrounding BOL. This was probably the most highly paid job these journalists had ever held in their careers. Many of them had worked hard for decades to rise on the top and they had reached here in spite of encountering peer jealousies and frequent criticism. They had already been labeled as greedy and selfish. It must have been a tough decision for many of them but they have surely made the journalism community very proud and instilled a new spirit of hope that journalism is not for sale.

These journalists have set a new precedence for their country's media. They have acted as bravely as the lawyers did in 2007 by standing up against General Musharraf when the former dictator deposed the country's Chief Justice. Many lawyers lost income and missed opportunities to be promoted as judges because of their commitment to the country's constitution. They struggled for two daunting years before General Musharraf was compelled to reinstate the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Today, it was the journalists' turn to show that money did not solely define who they are and what they stand for. Many of them made a decision that they would perhaps never regret.

The resignation episode also comes as a reminder that the media in Pakistan is gradually changing for better. The recent years have seen more journalists coming out and refusing dictations from the military and other non-state actors and now they have said no to a business tycoon who believed he could buy the best of the country's journalists. So, what are the lessons learned from this episode? Husain Haqqani, a former journalist and Pakistan's ex-ambassador to the United States, summarized it this way on Twitter: "Lesson for journo friends from #Bol #Axact saga: When someone offers way more money than market rates, the money is often shady."

The NYT report has pushed the Pakistani media into a new age. One lesson that Pakistan's press corps should learn is that that foreign journalists who produce excellent journalism do not do so on the instructions of any foreign governments or intelligence agencies, as they accused journalist Declan Walsh. Quality journalism is extremely essential for a functioning democracy. Journalists should keep questioning everything and everyone, including themselves, so that a culture of accountably and transparency is developed and promoted.