A New York Times story that has exposed the alleged involvement of a Pakistani IT company, which is planning to launch "Pakistan's largest media infrastructure", in a multimillion fake degree scam, has caused an earthquake in the country's media. On May 17th, the New York Times reported that Axact, the self-proclaimed most successful private sector company in Pakistan, has made millions of dollars by issuing fake university degrees. The report has shocked and embarrassed most Pakistanis about the fraudulent businesses that have thrived in their country because of the government's ignorance while the other experts have questioned the impact of this scandal on the future of Pakistan's growing tech sector. The NYT exposé will have a profound impact on the future and the credibility of Pakistan's news media.
In Pakistan, everyone has a favorite television talk-show host. Everyone watches political debates before going to bed. The talk-show hosts are household names. They are famous, controversial, venerated and loathed. While some people bet on the patriotism and piety of their loved hosts, the others swear that some of these anchorpersons, certainly those with whose views they disagree, are on the payroll of the national or international intelligence agencies. In a nutshell, conversations about the media and television news personalities are as popular a hobby as topics like cricket, Islam and America.
For the past many months, an upcoming news channel, BOL (which in Urdu means to speak), has added a new layer to the conversation about the news personalities. BOL has been hiring some of the most influential and highly paid journalists who previously worked for top media companies. BOL had caused a storm in the media because at one point people even stopped speculating about the limits of its finances. After all, one big channel can only hire a few top journalists at a time but BOL, much to everyone's amazement, was recruiting almost anybody who was somebody in the industry. Where was so much money coming from? While it was known that Axact, the IT company, funded the upcoming news channel, the NYT story now informs us that Axact's money was all black.
Shoaib Ahmed Shaikh, the chief executive of Axact, has chosen an immature approach to respond to the NYT story. Instead of addressing what he still calls as 'allegations' by the New York Times, Mr. Shaikh has begun to shoot the messenger, Declan Walsh, the reporter who investigated and reported the story. In a speech that was apparently made to the staff of BOL and then distributed on the social media, Mr. Shaikh hid himself under the infamous umbrella of patriotism and dispelled the significance of the NYT report because, according to him, it was filed by a journalist who had been expelled from Pakistan. Thus, the report, to paraphrase the CEO's argument, should be read as sort of a revenge from the journalist against being thrown out of Pakistan in 2013. Mr. Shaikh also reiterated the most commonly used Pakistani phrase, "a foreign conspiracy against our country" to put the NYT story in the context. He insisted that the reporter had no credibility because the government had previously declared him a persona non grata and banned his entry to Pakistan.
If Mr. Shaikh, the CEO of an upcoming news channels, believes that Mr. Walsh's credentials are "questionable", then he is surely oblivious what outstanding journalism looks like. His views about a widely admired investigative reporter who covered Pakistan for many years for the British newspaper, the Guardian, and then the NYT would disappoint everyone who had hoped that BOL would adhere to the core values of independent journalism. It is true that Mr. Walsh had been expelled from Pakistan but most Pakistani journalists did not approve of their government's decision. Excellent reporting of some untold stories, such as the 2011 story Pakistan's Secret Dirty War that highlighted the army's involvement in human rights abuses in the province of Balochistan, irked the government so much that they never forgot or forgave Mr. Walsh until they finally kicked him out of Pakistan. No journalist, including Mr. Walsh, should be sorry for doing a great story. So, Mr. Shaikh is not engaging in appropriate professional behavior by making personal attacks on a reporter instead of focusing on the contents of the NYT report.
I found two things truly discomforting in Mr. Shaikh's speech. The first one was his condescending attitude toward the reporters because of the meager salary they are paid. He gave the reporters a very ludicrous incentive to join and stay with his television network: clean restrooms. He reminded them that they had the option to join BOL to make good money or go back to the old times when newspapers failed to pay the journalists for months because of insufficient budgets. Secondly, he said that the purpose of BOL was to promote Pakistan's "positive image" in the world. That is primarily a flawed approach for any media organization. Journalistic institutions are not responsible for promoting any brand or image. Their job is to tell stories accurately. The task to promote countries and individuals is generally entrusted either to ambassadors or public relations specialists not journalists. If promoting Pakistan's 'positive image' is the goal at BOL, he should clearly admit that his is a propaganda channel of the government not a news organization. After all, CNN and BBC, for instance, do not assert any such commitment to promote the positive image of the country from where they are aired.
An independent news media is essential for Pakistan's democracy but it is also more important to be transparent about the sources of funding for news organizations. In the first place, journalists should not work for a media organization that makes money through illegal means. Shady money is very likely to cause disruption and police raids on media organizations. That's the worst thing any journalist would want to encounter while working on a story.
Secondly, big businesses should not use journalism as a shield to protect their controversial activities. In spite of extremely hard circumstances for a free press, several journalists in Pakistan have lost their lives in their pursuit of telling the truth. In the wake of the Axact scandal, it is not only the future of one company or a CEO that is at stake. It is disturbing how economic hardships have made Pakistan's journalists vulnerable to working for companies whose sources of revenue are doubtful. Most journalists I know say they did not join the profession to make money. They chose to become journalists because they were passionate about telling stories. In Pakistan the CEO of Axact has kept the bar very low. He says journalists should work for him so that they can use clean restrooms in Pakistan's "finest and most modern infrastructure."