It’s not every day that the Attorney General of Pakistan (AGP) condemns a law he is sworn to defend. Yet that is exactly what happened at the Islamabad High Court earlier this month when AGP Khalid Jawed referred to the recently imposed Peca Ordinance as “a draconian law if [it] comes into force in the present shape.”
This is not the first time in Pakistan's history that the term ‘draconian’ has been used to describe a ‘law’. But the sheer invasiveness and disingenuous nature of the recent ordinance have set off a firestorm among the journalists' community — particularly, the idea that anyone may be sentenced up to six months in prison for the ‘crime’ of spreading ‘fake news’ against a government official or institution. As always, we put the cart before the horse by specifying the punishment without specifying the crime.
What is even more ironic is that the majority of falsehoods proliferating on social media in recent days are not coming from journalists, but rather the same political leaders fighting for these laws.
Whether it’s the spreading of a fabricated letter from a US-based NGO claiming to fund various news media outlets for anti-government sentiment, or the mislabeling of a picture to malign a political party for corruption and wrongdoing, disinformation campaigns are rife these days, triggered by the vote of no-confidence motion and the political wrangling and blame game.
As is usually the case, the same media groups accused of such falsehoods are quick to engage their own fact checkers to bust these myths. That of course makes them even bigger targets by party loyalists just looking for another excuse to curse the media.
The current crisis perfectly encapsulates our dichotomous conception of ‘fake news’. As self-explanatory as we may find the crime of ‘fake news’, the fact is that we do not actually understand the term at all. There was a time when ‘fake news’ simply meant just that — news that wasn’t true.
Almost overnight, however, it became a catch-all term to refer to news that governments simply didn’t agree with, didn’t want to admit openly, or even didn’t like. Over time, it has been effectively weaponised to delegitimise the media as a system of accountability for governments, or used as an excuse to blame poor governance and performance on an ‘image problem’ because of ‘journalistic bias’.
And it worked: credibility in the mainstream media is at an all-time low, particularly because of the ‘fake news’ circus.
Former US president Donald Trump used it effectively to quell the US media’s criticism of his policies. And governments around the world have noticed. Russia most recently used it to clamp down on any opposing media narrative to the war in Ukraine, referring to a story of the bombing of a maternity hospital as 'fake news'.
It is not surprising then that Pakistan has followed suit. However, as the world realised over time, drawing a line between 'fake' and 'real' news is rarely that simple.
Fake news vs ‘fake news’
In recent years, the term ‘fake news’ has been far too politicised and compromised, making its use downright counterproductive. Internationally, the terms ‘junk news’ or ‘information disorder’ have become more acceptable as alternatives.
Based on this, three further categories have been established, taking into account two key factors — the level of truth in the information, and its capacity for harm.
Misinformation — news that is false, but not spread with intent to harm. This can include Whatsapp forward messages claiming that drinking garlic essence or kalonji are the cure for Covid-19.
Mal-information — news that contains real information but is designed to cause harm. This includes strategic leaks, harassment, hate speech, and disclosures done to damage someone’s reputation or endanger their life.
Disinformation — news that that is false and spread with intent to harm. This usually refers to content that is manipulated or fabricated to give the impression that it is real but is designed to damage someone’s character or repute. The constant references to Prime Minister Imran Khan as a Jewish agent by certain politicians can fall within this category.
However the problem doesn’t really end with the categorisation. The larger issue is that people don’t genuinely recognise whether a piece of information is real or not. Studies have shown that false news content is far more likely to be shared than that based on truth, and that we are more likely to share a story just on the basis of the headline, rather than the whole content.
Moreover, there has been a tendency to explain this as a problem of comprehension or intelligence — that people don’t have the sense to recognise false information and simply forward it without thinking. In reality, however, research suggests that highly intelligent and competent people are quite prone to believing and sharing such news too.
How else can we explain that a sitting federal minister and PhD from a globally recognised university would share a letter claiming that Benazir was seeking to stop US assistance to Pakistan? Or that a satirical piece from The Onion claiming that the CIA was apologising for having wrongly accused Al-Qaeda of the 9/11 attacks was believed to be real and tweeted by several senior police officers? Or that a minister’s speech to parliament referenced ‘The ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ as if it was a real book containing the actual master plan of the Jewish community?
The problem is not a lack of recognition. It is, unfortunately, with our heads. More specifically, it is the way we take mental shortcuts or readily give in to cognitive biases — we are likely to see something as real if it agrees with our world view, ideology or belief systems and even more likely to reject something as false or hateful if it disagrees with those systems.
Shireen Mazari’s defence of the false Benazir letter is telling. When called out on the post, she deleted it, but followed it by saying, “Thanks for pointing out and I have deleted. But let's be clear — the PPP leadership at that time did reach out to the US using the Nuclear issue to win their support”.
This mindset shows that we aren’t necessarily looking for the truth — Mazari was instead seeking something to validate her existing views. A person like that is very prone to being duped by misinformation.
It doesn’t help that this conspiracy theory has wide acceptability in Pakistan, despite being so far stretched from the truth. And that speaks to another major reason why junk news spreads so fast in Pakistan —conspiratorial thinking.
Berooni saazish and echo chambers
Research indicates that countries with information vacuums create an atmosphere of uncertainty and distrust among the public. All it then takes is a crisis to trigger an avalanche of conspiratorial thinking.
Countries with low levels of transparency and accountability, particularly at the top, invite this very sentiment. It’s a running joke that every time you want to bury the truth, simply set up an inquiry, so that the government shows signs of action, and nothing needs to be made public.
Add to this a good dose of post-colonial anti-authoritarianism, and you have the perfect recipe for conspiracy theories ranging from the illuminati being the servants of Dajal to child-eating lizards running the world economy.
Ironically in Pakistan, conspiracies have become a currency for credibility. The recent volley of tirades from leaders across the political spectrum are a game of “who’s the bigger traitor”, with everyone from India's Narendra Modi to US President Joe Biden supposedly involved in conspiring for the ouster of Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar or neutralising our nuclear assets, depending on who’s talking and who’s listening.
Dr Mazari’s letter did not appear in a vacuum. It appeared as part of a wide-ranging narrative supported and complemented by many that share her views, regardless of the evidence. This is referred to as the echo chamber effect.
The echo chamber essentially means that when you believe something, you are likely to be drawn to people with the same beliefs as you, segregating yourself towards an extreme, and creating an alternative reality where only your views are the correct ones, and all others are false. This phenomenon makes our views even more rigid, and creates a sense of “us-vs.-them”, pitting one group against the other.
It explains why we will only believe the word of one party and declare all others false. It also explains why we are likely to follow one news channel or read one newspaper and dismiss all others as fake. And it is also why our Facebook friends and Whatsapp groups tend to spread the same kind of memes and posts that celebrate us and our people and castigate all others.
Credibility is down to a show of hands. And it appears we are only looking at one set of hands.
In the age of social media, this has just been exacerbated to a new level. The testimony by Facebook whistleblower Francis Haugen explained that Facebook algorithms "take people who have mainstream interests and push them to extreme interests", by encouraging interactions that create more division and discord. More discord means more engagement, and more engagement means more users, which means more monetisation, which means Facebook gets better value on its ads.
And all this comes at a simple cost — the stability of the modern world.
Innuendo and self-censorship
In Pakistan, the threat isn’t just from those who don’t believe you. In fact, the greater peril is from those who think journalism can be a threat to the state, particularly when it challenges or denigrates the narrative pushed forward by the government at the time. Never mind that the definition for what constitutes a violation is broad, vague and inconsistent, almost by design.
This has split journalism into a strange dichotomy. At times, people can make insane claims, backed at best by flimsy evidence, if any. At other times, information backed by irrefutable evidence can be cast aside as a threat to the state. And sometimes, a combination of both happens, with people resorting to innuendo or gossip to say the things they’re not allowed to say. Khalai Makhlooq, anyone?
What does one then do in this situation? As expected, the media has split into camps, all with different, varying, and problematic approaches. And a lot of it has to do with the way the media institutionalisation and professionalism has evolved over the last decade and a half.
Analysis vs catharsis
First, most journalists don’t receive any formal training, with the majority of media houses hardly ever investing in their personnel, thinking of it as a revolving door of hiring and firing.
It also doesn't help that the most influential news format is not one necessarily dominated by journalists alone. The rise of “current affairs” has meant that media savvy is more important than media literate, that screen presence is given precedence over news competence, and accuracy and responsibility take a back seat for viewership and the much-maligned TRP ratings.
This made sense to the bosses as well — if anyone from a ghee manufacturer to a cigarette maker was going to be allowed to set up a TV channel, why would they change their ethos in the selection of these anchors? In the era of profit maximisation, it is not the journalist with integrity, but the one with the attention, that’s allowed to lord over the airwaves.
Hence ex-bureaucrats, hotel managers, medical doctors, television actors, and even game show hosts have become “current affairs anchors”. It is to our dismay that this happened, because this further blurred the distinction between “anchor”, “host”, and “journalist”.
With the vast majority of the audience unable to differentiate between these three very separate categories, they applied the same standard to all. The bosses have no problem with it because they’re making money, and as long as there are no major infractions, these anchors can say pretty much anything they want, with complete impunity. Almost.
The rise of tajziakars
A major reason for the confusion between journalists and non-journalists is the rise of experts from varying public sector institutions, who claim to have expertise and knowledge, with insights gleamed for insider info only they, the selected few, possess. This is partially attributable to the rise of private media.
Having been a Current Affairs Producer for several shows, my anchor and I were pressurised on countless occasions into calling certain analysts to shows because they gave a ’higher rating’ due to their salacious style and vitriolic statements. Initially, this was reserved for certain politicians, but eventually the “tajziakar” class of experts emerged.
However, this is also because non-political institutions have sought to influence the media innumerous ways, either through their current or ex-cadre writing columns, or appearing on shows. Some institutions have even gone to the extent of making an approved list of analysts, while not officially representing the views of the institution.
Hence, former diplomats, bureaucrats, law enforcement officers, and military officers are the norm on TV channels now, representing while not representing, giving their own scoop with zero verification, while also being approved to give it without any direct affiliation.
In some exceptional cases, these tajziakars become so popular that they start hosting their own shows or becoming regular columnists. Once they have their own platform, they are free to rage over whatever takes their fancy, usually accompanied by a pretty female co-host, who’s only there to validate the views of the tajziakar. To make matters worse, in some cases, the female co-hosts are instructed not to ask any follow-up questions just to assuage the host's ego.
This creates a culture of ‘crystal ball’ truth telling and unverified gossip masquerading as serious investigative journalism. It becomes even more confusing for the viewer, harms credible reporting, and can seriously compromise the integrity of an ongoing investigation.
We saw this firsthand in the Zainab murder case where a doctor-cum-documentary filmmaker turned soothsayer made the bombshell revelation of a global paedophilic pornography ring, without even conducting a basic check. After being harshly reprimanded by the Supreme Court, he apologised, but not before misleading the entire country and wasting the government’s resources on a wild goose chase. It was disinformation of the highest order.
His defence though was even more telling, when he said that the “investigation was not his responsibility and it was the job of state institutions to find the authenticity of the news … I did not provide this information with any wrong intent”.
Actually, it WAS his job. In fact, that was his ONLY job. An investigative piece without any investigation is just a baseless claim. It is not the job of state institutions.
This kind of mindset among media personalities lies at the root of the problem. When self-proclaimed experts who claim to know everything and everyone gets called out on their claims, they say it’s not their responsibility to verify the truth.
They might be a lot of things, but they are not journalists.
Leaks and ‘fake news’
A major reason behind the Peca ordinance seems to be the never-ending flurry of rumours about the government and its direction, or lack thereof. A sinking ship tends to leak the most after all. The government and its echo chambers dismiss these rumors as agenda-driven lies and smears done at the behest of political opponents or anti-state elements. The naysayers on social media have a special place for this form of “yellow journalism”, and ‘fake news’. Even when its real.
On April 15, 2019, some news channels reported a possible shuffle in the federal cabinet and the change in portfolios of several ministers, including the removal of Asad Umar as finance minister.
Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry denied the news, terming the reports baseless. The next day, the Pemra slapped fines on the news channels for airing “fake and unsubstantiated news”, and “creating chaos among the public and maligning the government functionaries”.
Three days later, the “fake news” of the cabinet shuffle became real. Asad Umar, among others, was removed from his portfolio.
A similar situation occurred with Umar Cheema’s reporting on PM Imran's third marriage, which was rebutted by the PTI initially as false and irresponsible reporting, before admitting to it weeks later. Of course, the episode turned the investigative reporter into enemy no.1, resulting in him being included in the eponymous ‘anti-state sahafi’ list, and even led to a social media trend targeting his wife.
This isn’t a new development in any way. Denial of news stories to avoid potentially embarrassing or incriminating disclosure is as old as journalism itself. The problem though is when the denial is accompanied by the character assassination of the journalist, followed by targeted verbal and institutional attacks against the media outlet.
These campaigns are designed to intimidate and harass, so that the media house backs off from its original story, or backs off from its support of the reporter. This is a major reason why several major anchors and journalists have been forced to resign or suspend their programmes.
In Pakistan though, we assassinate more than just someone’s character.
Treason and ‘fake news’
Consider the drone programme and its disclosure. Prior to November 2005, the Musharraf regime denied its existence altogether, attributing the strikes to aerial bombing by the Pakistan Air Force. It took a local reporter’s pictures of the Hellfire missile remnants in Miran Shah for the government to officially admit to the US-led program.
The episode was an embarrassment for Musharraf. The reporter was subsequently abducted and later found dead. His wife, who demanded justice, also mysteriously disappeared.
This is just one example of many where embarrassing the government or holding it publicly accountable is seen as a bigger crime than the actual actions of the government. Some say it speaks to our society’s penchant for viewing talking about vices as a bigger crime than the vices themselves, which is why honour killings and child abuse run rampant.
Channels have faced much heat when contradicting or defying the government's narratives, whether it was the disclosure that Ajmal Kasab was a Pakistani citizen, or when reporting on killings in Balochistan.
However, the anti-media opposition has gone a step further, labelling these journalists as enemies of Pakistan, pressuring news channels to remove them, and attacking them with vitriol and abuse on social media. It is not uncommon to find some trend on Twitter referring to journalists with unflattering words of a sexual nature, or labelling them anti-state because somehow not following the state’s narrative is the biggest crime a journalist can do.
The question then arises: since when is following the state’s version the only way to cover a story? And since when is not covering that version a form of treason?
People who think this way clearly don’t understand the difference between public relations and media. One is reminded of a tweet by former US President Donald Trump stating, “CNN International is still a major source of (Fake) news, and they represent our Nation to the WORLD very poorly”.
In response, the CNN said: “It’s not CNN’s job to represent the US to the world That’s yours. Our job is to report the news.”
This exposes our fundamental misunderstanding of what the media is supposed to do. Our insecurities belie our weakness, whereby talking about the crime is worse than the crime itself because it will harm our image in the world.
In a country gripped by paranoia, everything has fallen under the national security ambit, and hence any example of going contrary is seen as anti-state. The Pemra laws, in all their wonderous ambiguity, have made a sport out of fining and banning channels that dare to venture beyond or against the official version.
But if all official versions were true, journalism would not exist. The whole point is to investigate beyond what’s told to us and find out what’s really going on.
Echo chambers on the airwaves
The fact is that conspiracy mongering sells well in Pakistan. Moreover, due to a lack of checks, few if any get called out on it, leaving them free to rant on about grand international illuminati-esque conspiracies against Pakistan, or targeting groups on the basis of their faith, or both. In some extreme cases, they even go to the extent of actively encouraging killings against individuals or groups.
This makes the line between news and opinion even more blurry. When you are actively engaging in discourse that creates divisions, sows hatred, and incites violence, is it really justified as journalism? Furthermore, where do we draw the line between news and hate speech?
While the former can be easily answered, the latter is not, because in Pakistan people tend to consider anything as hate speech or fake news. Just because you are offended by something, does not make it fake or hate speech.
However, Pakistan’s media has been known to prodigiously delve in “dangerous speech”, where the words of an individual or group can lead to persecution and violence. The criteria, developed by renowned researcher Susan Benesch, specifically assesses the increase of risk that the viewing audience will commit or condone violence against another individual or group, particularly on the basis of faith, gender, ethnicity, etc., promoting fear or hatred against that group, and using false assertions, or unverified claims and active disinformation to do so.
Interestingly, here the hyper sensitive and litigious Pemra seems to pay little attention, despite numerous complaints and calls for action against channels involved in “dangerous speech”. Instead, the regulatory authority seems far more interested in instituting bans on hugs on TV dramas than calls to behead people.
The Faizabad riots are an important case in point. The coverage by a certain private channel was particularly damning for creating a sympathetic portrayal of the rioters, creating a sentiment against the government akin to a religious pogrom, and completely denying any of the violence and damage committed by the protesters. The channel’s agenda-driven coverage directly contributed to the violence, as noted by the Supreme Court, yet there was little in terms of punitive action.
Former Pemra Chairman Absar Alam went a step further, saying that while he wanted action to be taken against the channel, there was active state intervention to make sure it stayed on the airwaves.
Of course, for making these assertions, Absar Alam was labelled an anti-state agent, to the point that the attempt on his life was called a staged ‘drama’ by many on social media.
Interestingly, these efforts were also criticised by some in the journalist community, as a threat to the country's ideology and the sanctity of the blasphemy laws, essentially just fanning the flames further. It doesn’t help that the same journalists proudly proclaimed that twisting the truth is perfectly justified in the national interest.
A new level of moral absolutism has crept into the journalist community, one that squarely supports any and all actions of the country and state as beneficial to the nation. Anyone contradicting it is seen as enemy no.1 and is subject to silence or intimidation. Those in the middle, prefer to self-censor.
This in turn sows the seeds for the legitimisation of disinformation — the deliberate spread of falsehoods. This is a phenomenon called “advocacy media”, where talk show hosts will support a certain political side or ideology, even to the point of twisting facts, covering up others, and actively propagating falsehoods.
The United States has seen the effects of this polarisation with the “Stop the Steal” movement to discredit the 2020 Elections by members from Fox News, Newsmax and others.
Importantly, the architects of this crusade, such as Sean Hannity don’t refer to themselves as journalists, but rather as “opinion talk show hosts” or “advocacy journalists”. This gives them a way out, as these hosts are not bound by the standards and checks that apply for media professionals, such as verifying what you say.
Sounds familiar, right?
For the viewer, it is impossible to tell the truth anymore. If you are an avid follower of an anchor or TV channel, chances are you will believe their content without questioning it. Viewers can’t tell the difference between media and “advocacy media”, which in turn spreads disinformation even further.
Responsibility and accountability
Whether one agrees or not, the Peca is a necessary piece of legislation. There is indeed a need to clamp down on information disorder. However, the terminology used, and the potential intended beneficiaries or affectees, make it very clear where the law lies and where it stands to harm. If there is to be an actual law against ‘fake news’, we need to draw some clear lines.
First, we cannot pick and choose whom to target and how. The law needs to be applied indiscriminately. So the next time a federal minister tweets a fake letter implying a falsehood regarding leud practices during a protest, he or she must be held to the same treatment as someone whose home is raided by the FIA due to an implication on a TV show.
The use of the term ‘fake news’ also needs to be done away with. The word has become far too politicised to be of any use, and must therefore be replaced by something more sensible. A few examples have already been applied in this piece.
Third, there is a need to draw up specific definitions of what qualifies as information disorder. Denying a news story does not make it a false story as the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting's now-defunct ‘fake news buster’ tried to do time and time again. Nor can any story that criticises the government and its officials qualify as a form of fake news or a threat to the state. A democracy needs to accept accountability as a fundamental pillar, and journalism is a critical component of that pillar.
There is also a dire need to recognise our own biases within society. We need to hold ourselves accountable and introspect as to whether our own beliefs may be misguided too. Understanding cognitive biases and removing them from our systems are key to protecting ourselves from information disorder. And that begins with critical thinking.
We must also understand that journalists themselves need to hold themselves to account. There are far too many soothsayers and fortune tellers amidst hardworking professionals, and they need to be weeded out. We need to accept out faults where they lie. We cannot be part of the echo chambers that contribute to societal divisions.
Lastly, we need to accept that journalism is an evolving field. We won’t get it right every time. But that does not mean that we are enemies of the state. What we can’t do is silence ourselves out of threat of legal action or violence.
Nor can we silence the media in the name of protecting our image. We have to be more secure about who we are. The first step in getting better is admitting our flaws and a strong media institution does just that.
It is our right to be wrong sometimes. That’s the only way we will ever get it right.
Header illustration: Branko Devic/ Shutterstock