THE BLOG

The Pakistani Friends and the Foes of the New York Times

05/23/2015 04:29 am ET | Updated May 22, 2016

There are rare occasions when the launching of a new media company makes top headlines on other news organizations. For example, in 2013 when Al-Jazeera announced the launching of a channel from the United States after purchasing Al Gore's Current TV for $500 million, big U.S. newspapers and networks reported about it. The launching of Al-Jazeera American generated a great hype among the media analysts. Some believed it would usher in a new epoch of investigative journalism and others feared it would give a tough time to the existing networks. Then came Al-Jazeera America and nothing happened. Mere hype does not define the impact of a news organization.

For many months the media in Pakistan has been going through the same phase that the American media experienced at the time of the anchoring of Al-Jazeera America. A new news network, BOL, was going on pre-launch campaign that was almost similar to the hype the Doha-based network had triggered. Some anticipated a media earthquake that will shake the foundations of many established television networks, while others hoped that for the first time in the country's history journalists would be paid handsomely for the hard work they do. Then there came the New York Times story revealing that Axact, a software company that was funding the BOL project, was actually engaged in a global fraud of churning out fake degrees. The revelation was so big that it nearly derailed the launch of the new channel or jeopardized the employment of hundreds of media workers, including several nationally acclaimed star journalists.

Shaken by the NYT disclosure, the owners of BOL launched their test transmission ahead of the scheduled date for its launch. It is strange that the Pakistani government has allowed the network to go on air in spite of the major scandal. The government has already initiated an investigation into the scandal that surrounds the news channel's parent company, Axact. However, the authorities should have prevented the channel from going on air unless it proved that the money that is being invested in the network did not come from fraud and illegal means. It is dangerous to authorize a media company to go on air when its parent company is under federal investigation. This is clearly a conflict of interest. The network, in spite of being in its testing mode, can interfere in the investigations and mislead the public opinion. Media should not be given in the hands of those who simultaneously face charges of breaking the law because they can exploit the media to influence the law, the lawmakers and those who enforce it.

Shoaib Ahmed Shaikh, the CEO of BOL, has also emerged as the main spokesman for Axact and BOL since the NYT broke the story. His speeches and interviews are worrying because of his lack of understanding of journalism and how the media in Pakistan works.

For example, he has been complaining that the story against his company was published because his professional rivals had egged the NYT reporter to pursue his investigations. Well, if that is true what is wrong with that? Isn't it how reporters are supposed to work? It is surprising that the CEO of an upcoming news organization does not know that reporters always use the opponents of leaders and companies as the source of a big story. It is pretty obvious that a journalist does not get a scoop against a leader or a company by speaking to their spokespersons.

It does not matter who tips a reporter about a story that mortifies certain people nor does it exempt the wrongdoer from his or her actions only because their rivals tipped the reporter. For ages, journalists have been checking-in with people's opponents and competitors to get ideas for their next scoop. If Mr. Shaikh did not know this journalistic practice, his ignorance may cause the decline of his media empire one day through one of his own investigative reporters by the virtue of a leaked internal memo. Having a lot of money is not enough to run a big media company. It is also important to know how the people who work there maneuver and bring story ideas at the morning editorial meeting table.

In another attempt to provide a clear explanation about the origins of Axact's revenue, the BOL officials and staff have raised questions on the integrity of the NYT because its local partner for the International New York Times in Pakistan is the Express Tribune, a paper owned by one of BOL's biggest competitors. Any follower of the Pakistani media would consider such conclusions as absurd. In spite of being NYT's partner in Pakistan, the Express Tribune does not have even half of the independence, professional integrity and reliability of its New York-based partner. As a matter of fact, media critics have ridiculed the Tribune for its frequently unconditional submission to the Pakistani military establishment, the Taliban and even the political parties.

On March 22, 2014, for instance, the NYT reported:

An article about Pakistan's relationship to Al Qaeda, and its knowledge of Osama bin Laden's last hiding place within its borders, was censored from the front page of about 9,000 copies of the International New York Times in Pakistan on Saturday, apparently removed by a local paper that has a partnership to distribute The Times.

An insider's shocking account on how the Tribune actually compromises its journalistic integrity by succumbing to pressure from the Pakistani military was published in Foreign Policy on November 20, 2014. Neha Ansari, a visiting researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), who had previously worked as a senior sub-editor at the paper's Karachi office, wrote, "there is a more elusive problem within the country's press landscape: the collusion of Pakistan's powerful military and the nation's media outlets. I experienced this first-hand while I worked as a journalist at the Express Tribune."

Similarly, when Imtiaz Alam, a veteran journalist working for the television channel of the same group that owns the Tribune, protested against his organization's pro-military policy in the wake of an assassination attempt on a fellow journalist, Hamid Mir, the newspaper brazenly stood on the army's side although the targeted journalist had blamed Pakistan's spymasters for trying to kill him. The Tribune accused the respected journalist of "spitting venom, making wild accusations against the ISI".

The battle between BOL and the Tribune is not for the supremacy of independent journalism. It is, unfortunately, a competition between two media groups to prove who is the real darling of the Pakistani military. In this contest, both sides use the NYT to make arguments in their favor and against the opponents. Alas, the Times has got bad friends and foes in Pakistan.