Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Kayani's Briefing: Dawn's Shoddy Journalism

A Dawn newspaper columnist Cyril Almeida has just given a new twist to the term fifth-columnist.

Today he has published a lousy piece of journalism that should be manadatory reading in schools across the country for pitfalls to avoid in a media career.

Far from journalistic curiosity, the only purpose of the piece appears to be to embarrass Pakistan Army Chief of Staff in his relations with key officials in US government. Columnist Almeida extensively quoted from a background briefing and turned inaccuracies into policy statements. Thankfully, he didn't forget to add, "All comments were made strictly on the condition of anonymity being maintained."  Oh really?

Mr. Almeida apparently was one of four-dozen editors, talk-show hosts and columnists invited by Pakistan Army Chief Gen. Ashfaque Kayani to his office on Sunday for an informal and off-the-record chat on the country's strategic situation. From the accounts of most of those who attended the dinner, Gen. Kayani spent a lot of time explaining the defense and army budgets and then delved into regional military issues when some of his guests went that way during Q&A.

All discussion was strictly a 'backgrounder', meant to help journalists get a better context for regional developments. Organizers of the event stressed several times to all participants not to report on the event and not to quote.

One can debate how much a journalist should or shouldn't stick to such official restrictions on information. What is beyond debate is the fact that Pakistan faces a very difficult and deteriorating strategic situation thanks to the blunders of our own and of some of our allies. If a senior official is candidly sharing information and context with Mr. Cyril Ameida and others, then Mr. Almeida, both as a journalist and as a citizen of the country, has the responsibility to reciprocate trust by controlling his urge to leak, especially when the information he just received deals with diplomacy and war and is not as urgent as exposing corruption and underhand deals.

Surprisingly for a professional journalist like Almeida, he tried to hide Gen. Kayani's indentity by identifying him only as a 'senior military official. Then he wrote, "The comments were part of a wide-ranging briefing given to editors, anchors and columnists on Sunday." 

So much for being discreet.

There was advance knowledge the army chief was arranging such a meeting. Several national dailies whose editors were invited ran brief stories on the meeting before it occured. So Mr. Almeida's 'source' was easily exposed.

Like the rest of us, a reporter at the Indian television news channel NDTV had little trouble figuring out the indentity of Almeida's 'senior military official'. The Indian channel reported, "[Dawn] did not name the military official but other media reports said army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani had briefed a select group of journalists."

The most damaging aspect of this kind of a leak is accuracy, or the lack of.  Mr. Almeida inaccurately reported on several points. For example, he said Mr. Kayani "claimed the country has transited from the ‘most sanctioned ally’ to the ‘most bullied ally’” of the US. While absolutely true, many of the participants are not sure they heard the Pakistani military commander make such a direct statement. Disappointingly for many, Gen. Kayani was very mellow and diplomatic, to quote one participant, presenting facts and policy statements and leaving interpretation to the listeners. Several journalists tried to drag him into spilling the beans, provoking him by questioning the timing of the meeting and try to link it to he Wikileaks story, or the start of Gen. Kayani's second three-year tenure, or the intricacies of Pakistani domestic politics. The general wound't have any of it.

Regular backgrounders by the country's leadership for the dynamic Pakistani media is a welcome step. The media has shown maturity and restraint in dealing with the issues covered in the latest briefing. State media managers in Islamabad and Rawalpindi need to improve the methods of delivery of background information, possibly streamline it in accordance with the latest best practices in public diplomacy methods. Often Pakistani media trails behind its peers in other nations like China, Iran, US, Russia and others in terms of the quality of current background information available to media professionals. Pakistan is a late entrant into this field and it would take stakeholders time to get a handle on it.

This is why Mr. Almeida's hiccup is an indiscretion that encourages forward momentum with improvements in the delivery of information to the Pakistani media in the future.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Asia Bibi Is Our Sister

... and we Pakistanis need to stand by her. I endorse capital punishment for those who bash Islam and its sacred symbols. And no one bashes Islam in Pakistan. Certainly not our Pakistani Christian brothers and sisters whose forefathers played a great role in Pakistan Independence Movement.

We own and defend our great religion and our great Prophet. But harassing a poor Pakistani Christian woman in the name of blasphemy is not justice. The great, fair-minded leaders of Islam, like Omar and Ali, would never endorse this. Shame on these half-educated mullahs who can't offer a word of support to a weak and poor woman being wrongly accused of blasphemy.

Would anyone dare utter a word against our great religion in our country, let alone a poor and weak woman who earns a living as a domestic helper?

We need Omar R.A.'s and Ali R.A.'s justice in this case. And we Pakistani Muslims must force half-educated clergy in groups such as Sunni Tehreek [I have more respect for Jamaat Islami and Tanzeem Islami] to stop making uneducated comments in this case. We are no good if we can't protect the weak and the wrongly accused among us. Unfortunately, because of the inflammatory statements by the uneducated, a minority of westernized and secular-minded NGOs, funded by foreign money, are seizing this opportunity to bash Pakistan and Islam. PPPP Senator Sherry Rehman wants to abolish the blasphemy law. That's fine. But she never uttered a word against the injustice done to Dr. Aafia Siddiqui? No comparison between her case and that of Asia's. The point is that the few westernized and secularist Pakistanis will try to seize this case to bash Pakistan and our great religion.  Asia needs our help against a stupid law and a fake case. But the champions of her case must be Muslim scholars first and foremost, and if not then all the rest of Pakistanis who know how great and tolerant and open-minded Islam is even if these half-educated mullahs know nothing about it.

Blasphemy law was originally enacted against a sect, Qadiyanis, who claimed Mohammad, peace be upon him, is not the last Prophet. Ordinary good-hearted Pakistanis are misled by the mullahs into believing this law is somehow a hedge against Islam-bashers in the West, such as the people behind the infamous Danish cartoons. That's not true. Our laws can't be implemented on those outside Pakistan. And no one inside Pakistan can dare insult Islam. Case closed.

We will never be secular. We are modern, and we are Muslim and Islam has always been a big-hearted religion. This is our opportunity to prove otherwise to others in the world who heard the ignorant statements of a few mullahs in this case. These mullahs need to be told to shut up. We defend our religion. And we do this by not tolerating a word against our religion and by defending the innocent and the wrongly accused.

P.S. I tell the few mullahs who exploit this case: Honor Pakistani Christians. Remember that they sided with Pakistan when even some Muslim leaders were sitting in the laps of the Brits and Indians. Also remember that one of the wives of our Prophet, the Umm al-Momineen, Maria, was Christian. She became Muslim after marrying our Prophet. Her name was Christian but out of respect for her, our Prophet didn't let her change her name and insisted she keep her original Christian name.  Also remember when the Great Omar R.A. conquered Jerusalem, Al-Quds, he refused to pray in a church because he was afraid Muslims might seize it later and convert it into a church. Thanks to him, that church stands today side by side with a mosque that was built on a ground near the church where Omar prayed in the open. Asia is our sister. If Omar R.A. was here today, he would have given her justice no matter what some half-educated mullahs of 'sunni tehreek' or whatever this group is named might have said.