Karachi: Apna Gareban on Waqt News is certainly not something new for people who have seen Matiullah Jan on DAWN News earlier this year. There are very few journalists in Pakistan who mean what they say and who have the courage to face real consequences while reporting and facing truth. This interview with Matiullah Jan was conducted in June during the days when he was under fire from DAWN News management and senior anchors in the industry. During those tough times for himself, Matiullah Jan committed that he would continue exposing the corrupt journalists community and media houses, and he kept his promise. He started a similar show again on Waqt News, exposing the corrupt practices of the Pakistani media industry. The information he has revealed in this interview has not been disclosed before and is part of my upcoming book “Who controls Pakistani media?”
TNT: How did the idea of Apna Gareban on DAWN News initiate? Who were the people who motivated you to start the show and who supported you initially? Who approved the idea and who were the producers and decision makers?
Matiullah Jan: The idea of Apna Gareban first came to my mind in 2004 when I came across this programme Media Watch on Australian TV network which was quite popular. In the meantime Pakistani media had already started spreading its wings and by 2010, when this programme started, the media had already become a big power player with a political role.
As the power of media grew and became absolute with no accountability, I thought the political government was too weak to hold media answerable and hence the accountability had to begin from within, through a talk show and a programme which will help media in introspection and self accountability. Therefore, I wrote a proposal for Dawn News, sent it to my editor Mubashir Zaidi and it was approved. Interestingly, only a year ago same proposal was not accepted when Zafar Abbas was Dawn News Editor North. At that time, we were conveyed by the management that “dogs don’t eat dog’s meat!”
With a long time desire to do such programme, the motivation came from my reporting from Supreme Court, where the principle of rule of law had just started to be implemented and I thought media should not be an exception. Thereafter, Mubashir Zaidi was indeed a big support who actually helped us giving this idea a shape and he was generous enough to endorse my relatively aggressive grilling of our colleague journalists on screen.
The other support came from my colleagues, Aezaz Syed and Abdul Shakoor who were always there for input and advice as also some good information. My producer Shaista Yasmeen and Rasearcher Farrukh were indeed the ultimate support in finalizing every episode of the week. In the beginning of the programme, I also had support of the then Bureau Chief Arshad Sharif. I must also admit here that owing to sensitivity of the programme, without the endorsement from top management, it could never have gone on air.
TNT: Once the program started to go on-air, what was the initial reaction from the journalist community and what was the response from viewers? Did you feel any change in response after few more episodes went on air?
Matiullah Jan: Once the programme was aired, it focused on academic though some unique aspects of journalism, which were never before revealed in front of common viewers. For example, the need for self accountability, some hidden aspects of Supreme Court reporting, conduct of journalists bodies, use of secret fund by information ministry etc. It was when we did a programme on government funded Hajj, the journalists and common people started responding with shock and awe. There was an unprecedented debate on the blogs and strong reaction from elected office bearers of media bodies who were named and shamed along with their pictures. Some of them protested and displayed banners outside Dawn office challenging me for a live debate and daring me to do programmes against media owners as well who were “more corrupt and devious” than working journalists. At the same time there was an emotional outburst of praise and commendation from common people who condemned the practice of government funded Hajj and announced complete support for the programme.
I could never imagine such a reaction from common people as some of them said they couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw this programme. “We thought journalists in Pakistan are beyond accountability and they are answerable to no one but when we saw Apna Gareban we were proud to see that some journalists have the courage for self accountability,” one of them said. Then came the episode about cheap and subsidized government accommodation for leading anchors and journalists in the heart of Islamabad. In this programme I dared one of my (then) friends to explain number of government allotments in his wife and brother’s name as was being reported by his rival journalists. When I investigated these reports, most of it were found to be true.
My Bureau Chief Arshad Sharif did not want me to mention about his wife, who was a government officer, but my point was that if Klasra (like other journalists) had the “privilege” to report about misconduct of wives of politicians and if he himself had the audacity to take illegal benefits through his wife, then the name has to be mentioned, and it was mentioned in my report during the programme. Klasra failed to explain the illegalities of the benefits he took from the government, although he had rightly argued that some of these benefits had been returned.
He then intelligently threw documents on me during the show as proof of what he said corruption of Dawn Group’s owners. The programme was live and I asked my producer to bring Hameed Haroon on telephone which she couldn’t. After the show, Bureau Chief Arshad Sharif shouted at me for what he said violating the editorial policy. That was the end of the friendship with these colleagues that later lead to fake blogging against me that continues even today in one form or the other. So this was the reaction from some of the journalists close to me. The others too were of course annoyed. I couldn’t help. There were so many journalists who availed the government funded Hajj facility and I couldn’t just focus on only few of them. The reaction was obvious, but the public reaction was of course a pleasant surprise.
TNT: Is the journalist community in Pakistan ready for self-accountability? Or is it too early for the Pakistani media industry to view themselves critically on ethical grounds?
Matiullah Jan: The closure of Apna Gareban and lack of courage by other TV channels to follow this otherwise a hugely popular idea is a clear proof that journalists community is not yet ready for self accountability. The other evidence supporting this argument is the absence of self regulatory mechanisms within media bodies. Ironically, media bodies themselves have institutionalized corrupt practices, with frequent donations from tax payer’s money in the name of press clubs and welfare.
There is no effective forum for public complaints against media. The electronic media regulatory authority PEMRA is all the times issuing notices to their licenses and the so called councils of complaints formed under it are not being very useful in either generating a public debate on TV contents or actually penalizing individual TV journalists. The 10 years old Press Council formed through a presidential proclamation of the then military ruler General Musharraf has also become a job seekers heaven with no practical work on holding print media journalists accountable.
With regards to the thinking that it might be too early to expect, I think it is already getting late as the media is growing out of its pants and it needs to checked and held accountable through fair and transparent implementation of regulations and laws. The new emerging alliance between an out of control media and a similarly independent judiciary is further complicating the problem. As the judges and journalists are fast losing sight of their ethical limits the ultimate victim of such an independence would of course be the common people.
TNT: Why was the program shut down? What was the ‘exact’ reason? Who were the individuals involved in exercising their influence to stop the show?
Matiullah Jan: I’m sure there can’t be one reason for shutting down the programme, but there is always a precipitating event that is made to look like the only reason for such an action. The reasons were clearly many. Starting from the strong reaction from corrupt mafia in journalists community and media bodies and there apprehensions that their turn will be the next. The media owners too were feeling the heat as they fully knew that accountability of media did not exclude scrutiny of their role and conduct vis-a-vis media workers and governments.
The programme particularly scared journalist families, i.e, those journalists who had almost all their brothers and family members in the media and they would naturally not accept anyone challenging their traditional hold in the media industry. This may also explain why Dawn News management first shot down Apna Gareban proposal when Zafar Abbas was Editor North and the argument “dogs don’t eat dog’s meat” starts to make sense. The programme was also later found to be counter productive to business of Dawn media group as it was destined to investigate business practices of the media groups, the operation of powerful cable TV mafia, and the artificial rating mechanism that has been hijacked by viewers in Karachi where over 500, out of of a total of over 800 rating meters across Pakistan, are installed.
TNT: Was it a particular episode or the whole series that haunted the journalist community?
The precipitating incident was my last investigation that could not go on air. This was about a large number of journalists in Islamabad who had got allotted from CDA commercial outlets, known as khokhas, at cheap prices. One big commercial venture in Islamabad facilitated by CDA belonged to Resident Editor The News (now in Dunya News) Muhammad Malik who was also interviewed. The other issue which became a point of contention between me and the then Editor Mubashir Zaidi was my investigation about a commercial outlet owned by Daily Dawn reporter Irfan Raza, who refused to give interview.
There were dozens of other journalists who had secured such favours. The programme was ready with names and pictures of such journalists when I was conveyed by Mubashir Zaidi that the story about Irfan Raza had to be dropped, which I refused. He said the programme will not be allowed by the management without dropping the story against Irfan to which I reminded him of the title of programme “Apna Gareban.” He didn’t agree and I also refused to budge and send the programme to Karachi for airing.
I think after my programmes on Hajj and government accomodation, the journalists across Pakistan were haunted by the series itself. I would receive phone calls from across Pakistan when journalists and common people would share with me the corrupt practices and blackmailing incidents of local media persons. They would all eagerly wait for the episode to go on air. Some journalists had started selling their illegal properties and were preempting a situation before Apna Gareban could reach them.
TNT: Did Talat Hussain, or any other executive director from DAWN intervened and supported your case against the management? Or, were all of them helpless?
Matiullah Jan: Good question. Apparently, all senior anchors were somehow very apprehensive about the programme. Even Hamid Mir who was contacted on telephone for the first show, expressed his apprehension by saying this should not become a tool in the hand of establishment to scare media persons. My subsequent programmes proved him wrong as I showed how government was using public money to corrupt media industry.
As regards, Talat Hussain, I think you need to ask him this question. But I know for fact that he never supported my programme and instead I have been conveyed that the management also consulted him before deciding “in principle” to sack me. So, there is no case of senior media persons being helpless, as most of them clearly were more apprehensive than supportive of my show.
TNT: Would you continue your efforts in exposing the black sheep in the journalist community using blogs, websites, twitter and other social media? Or, is it better not to expose the corruption among the journalists?
Matiullah Jan: Good question. In view of the extra-ordinary response and potential in the idea to work on, I certainly intend to carry forward the work in one form or the other. It is never better for a journalist not to expose. Part of the media has already exposed itself due to its corrupt practices and people are fast losing their confidence in journalists. We must do something urgently to restore that confidence by way of providing them the opportunity to debate the role and conduct of media on screen.