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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Asad Toor Affair: Exposed Unprofessionalism of Pakistani Media

Editor Global Village Space examines how this episode has exposed media's unprofessionalism, country's civil military fault lines and failure of state institutions to provide protection to common citizens and women against harassment and intimidation and has set the stage for greater regulation of the cyberspace.

What will be remembered as the “Asad Toor Affair” has badly exposed the unprofessionalism and moral bankruptcy of Pakistani media, civil-military fault lines of the country, and helplessness of Pakistani state institutions in handling the challenges of globalization and cyberspace.

The net result is that Pakistani state institutions – Police, FIA, and courts – are unable to discipline an ordinary petty mischief monger who slanders fellow journalists, their wives, and other women in media because this obnoxious man conveniently subterfuges and presents himself as a “journalist”.

Given Pakistan’s civil-military divide and heroism attached with being “anti-establishment,” no one in the media bothered to critically examine and understand the actual sequence of events and the veracity of claims being made by an irresponsible character and his loudmouth supporters. Truth, as usual, was the first casualty of this phony war between “Journalism and the State.”

Since western governments, media, and the NGO’s funded from abroad all are united in their venom for Pakistani state institutions so anyone taking shots – however unintelligently conceived these may be – against Pakistani military or ISI – automatically gets applause of BBC, New York Times, Reuters, VOA, DW, US Embassy, Amnesty International, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and of course Pakistani opposition these days.

This has thus become, for many Pakistanis, the shortest and the easiest route to global fame. No wonder, Stephen Sackur, of Hard Talk BBC, was briefed to describe this foul-mouthed mischief monger as a “famous journalist of Pakistan”.

This majestic characterisation “famous journalist” has badly exposed the political activism of BBC hidden cleverly under the veneer of British media professionalism. It is obvious that BBC teams look at Pakistan only through a cherished narrow funnel and have no balanced view of contemporary Pakistan – or its media world.

Read more: Pakistan has freest media in the world, Fawad tells Stephen Sackur

Over the past one week, given the extraordinary interest in this so-called, “Asad Toor Affair” much has appeared over social media – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube – and beam viral on the messenger App, WhatsApp. This has already provided facts to many to piece the whole story. But given the implications of this sordid drama – that should remind us of 1997 American film, “Wag the Dog” produced by Berry Levinson and Robert De Niro – for Pakistani media, state and society it’s still important to document its timeline and implications for Pakistani intelligentsia, media, and state institutions. Why these facts were not brought out by mainstream papers and media and why almost all of those entities did “selective reporting” remains a big question. It unfortunately exposes the professional weaknesses and “political activism” of Pakistani media.

Mr. Toor’s Journalistic credentials?

Briefly, Mr. Toor has mostly worked, not as a journalist or correspondent involved with research and writing, but in technical positions as a program producer and has only recently emerged as a political activist with the rise of social media. Within his “political activism” he has emerged as habitual and repeat offender whose specialty lies in making venomous personal attacks on all those he disagrees with. And his attacks on women defy the cherished norms of a Muslim society and South Asian culture.

Given lack of professional understanding, he fails to differentiate between “public office holders” and “common citizens” between “fact” and “rumour” between “fact” and “opinion” and between “ideas” and the “natural persons” who may espouse those ideas. So instead of attacking “ideas” he makes personal attacks and offensive commentaries against the men and women in media who advocate those ideas. In many cases this is to attract attention, win followers and to prove himself “brave”. Somehow rehtorical “bravery” and “courage” on pettiest possible issues have become “sine qua non” of Pakistani media instead of accuracy, research, understanding and articulation of public policy issues.

Most have ignored Mr. Toor’s pathetic attacks because it is commonly believed that Pakistani laws on defamation and harassment are weak, slow, and miserably ineffective and defamation suits have no decisive outcome. For all practical purposes, Pakistan has no effective implementation of laws that can prevent ugly harassment and intimidation of women. This is a huge problem for professional women who work outside their homes in a male dominated world where attacking and disparaging their character through different ways is normal. Despite claiming an Islamic inheritance state institutions and judiciary have not been able to do anything to counter this ugly practice. This was something that also found mention in a recent resolution of EU Parliament while discussing Pakistan’s GSP-plus status.

Though most in media attacked by Mr. Toor ignored him considering it a waste of time given lack of effective law enforcment. Nevertheless in 2017, prominent TV Anchor and journalist, Rauf Klasra, filed a defamation suit against him, and after three long years, or 36 months, he was awarded a mere Rs. One million in damages. Mr. Toor has appealed since then, and Mr. Klasra morally vindicated or perhaps disappointed has probably lost interest – given the unending labyrinthine legal system. This once again proves the total futility of whatever is referred to as “defamation laws of Pakistan. Hundreds of cases are pending in Pakistani courts without any logical conclusion.

Woman Journalist’s Complaint of harassment and intimidation 

On 29th or 30th March, this year, a female morning show host, Ms. Shiffa Yousafzai, of Hum News, filed an application against Mr. Toor, for harassment and intimidation of a working woman, with the Cybercrime Wing of FIA.

Given FIA’s disinterest in an ordinary citizen’s complaint and traditonal “Sarkari” inefficiency these notices took almost a month in reaching him; but when he finally received FIA notices in May, instead of appearing before FIA to explain his position, and ending the matter amiably with an honest apology and deletion of offensive videos, he landed in High Court on the grand plea – symptomatic of megalomania – that the state of Pakistan is after him.

Read more: FIA accused of ‘unprofessional behavior’ with harassment victim

Though FIA Notices clearly identified “Ms. Shiffa Yousafzai” as the complainant (Referring to his YouTube/Twitter) who is a known TV host, is a naturally occurring person, an aggrieved woman who reportedly went to FIA along with her mother to file the complaint but Mr. Toor in his petition totally ignores complaint by “Shiffa Yousafzai” (against whom he made three videos and several tweets) as if she did not exist and there is no such case of causing harassment of a woman. Instead of rejecting Ms. Shiffa’s complaint as untrue he mentions an old petition, of 2020, by some citizen, Hafiz Ehtesham, filed for insulting state institutions, as evidence of the macabre plot that “The State of Pakistan” is after him. it was obvious that he and his lawyer found it difficult to defend his conduct against the woman.

Hafiz Ehtesham’s petition was quashed by a court in September 2020 and was thus totally irrelevant. Toor was so afraid of Ms. Shiffa’s complaint to FIA that he also forgot that in his third video against her, “Exclusive New and Disturbing revelations about Shiffa Yousafzai” (March 2021) he had claimed (after 7th minute till end) that Govt of Pakistan is now using an institution in Pindi (meaning ISPR) and Aabpara (ISI) to build a campaign against him. And that it was told to him by several Anchors and parliamentarians.

Mr. Toor’s intention to play his case to the larger gallery of “journalist versus state” was thus obvious from the very beginning. Since Islamabad police is investigating the May 25, criminal assault against him that is clearly a matter of state (given the nature of his accusations) they now need to bring his testimony on record with names of anchors and parliamentarians who said such things and they need to be cross examined to determine the accuracy of his claims. 

Finally the dramatic event that rocked the country’s media happens exactly one week before the second court hearing when he claimed that three intruders forcibly entered his flat, claimed that they were from ISI, tied him up, beat him severely leaving him with bruises on his arms, and forced him to shout “ISI Zindabad”.

Read more: When and why terror groups synchronize or coordinate violent acts: Learning from June 23 attacks in Pakistan

If on May 4, he had claimed in court, without any material evidence, that state agencies were after him (a repeat of his March video) then on 25th May, these same state agencies obliged him and vindicated his standpoint by coming to beat him with a public announcement and provided him with “bruised arms” as evidence of the Stalinist state after him.

Fortunately, his injuries were minimal, but their political impact was huge. However hard we may try, it is difficult to ignore that his attackers had turned him from an aggressor facing complaints of harassment and intimidation from a woman into a celebrated victim, a hero of the world of journalism against the supposedly tyrannical state. Suddenly an ordinary mischief-monger, harassing and intimidating a woman, becomes a “brave journalist against a powerful state” -A “David against the Goliath.”

Gul Bukhari coming to Asad Toor’s rescue

But unfortunately, the account was so bizarre that few wanted to believe it. The event led to juicy discussions, articles floating on social media, vlogs, and heated arguments on Twitter Spaces. Most had heard and sincerely believed that ISI agents have in recent years picked up journalists on streets, taken them to safe houses, and grilled or roughed them.

But no one was willing to believe that ISI or any intelligence agency that comes to give you “bruised arms” also makes a public announcement and then leaves you free to record a video that goes viral within minutes. This obvious “weakness” this “credibility gap” in the allegation even dampened the spirits of some of his “support brigade.”

Now a passionate supporter, Ms. Gul Bukhari, has jumped in the fray to fix this “credibility gap” by recording a video, from somewhere outside Pakistan, to explain why poor Toor had been misled to blame ISI. She claims, with supreme confidence, that it has been conclusively discovered that ISI did not beat Mr. Toor but this assault was done by Military Intelligence (MI) along with a prominent TV Anchor, Imran Khan Riaz. And they have staged the drama to put it on ISI. Why another premier state institution like MI, that remains hidden from public eye, will conspire against ISI is never explained in Ms. Bokhari’s twisted world of Harry Potter and Ministry of Magic.

Ms. Bukhari, known for her anti-state views, claimed that out of three intruders, two were from MI (sent by a Colonel) and one was a personal servant of Anchor Imran Khan Riaz.

Read more: Op-ed: Pakistani politics may be more banal than its analysts make it out to be

Interestingly, while the super-intelligent Ms. Bokhari knew such intricate details – about one intruder being a servant of Imran Khan Riaz – she did not even know that Imran Khan is not working with Express-News anymore but does his programs with GNN for at least the past two years.

This brings us to ask: Who is Imran Khan Riaz? In case BBC and Stephen Sackur don’t know; he is one of the most highly paid TV Anchor and is the envy of most in Pakistani media because he also earns several thousand US $ each month from his YouTube videos on national, regional, and international issues and is watched millions of times each week. Khan has no time to talk to even his friends given his busy tv and YouTube schedules.

Read more: CPJ Index: Are journalists safe in Pakistan?

Mr. Toor has made several videos against Anchor Iman Khan apparently in the hope that putting Imran Khan Riaz’s photo on “Asad Toor Uncensored” and talking sensational nonsense against him will attract more views and thus dollars – but Imran Khan Riaz has never mentioned him.

Making obnoxious personal attacks against men and women in the hope of earning few dollars is what Mr. Toor’s “journalism” stands for. He recently uttered objectionable comments against the wives of another respected TV Anchor. Hope someone tells Stephen Sackur – and his BBC team – all this.

Piers Morgan and British Army

Ms. Gul Bukhari is apparently living somewhere in the UK. But given her habits, spoiled by the leniency and weakness of the Pakistani state, she did not realise that she has blatantly accused a natural person, Imran Khan Riaz, and a state institution, MI, of planning a clandestine intrusion and criminal assault inside a private flat – a serious crime punishable by a jail sentence.

I remember during the Iraq war that was hugely unpopular with the British left, Piers Morgan, respected Editor of Mirror, had to pay a huge price for accusing British army soldiers of pissing on Iraqi prisoners (2004).

Read more: Blair’s ‘Psychological Dominance’ Key In UK Entering Iraq War, Says Chilcot

Those were probably the days when disgusting photos of Abu Gharib prison were shocking the world. Bad things happen in wars and the “pissing act” by British soldiers was probably happening too, but Morgan’s error was publishing a photo with an army truck that showed the act, and the regiment checked and proved that the truck (with its army no) had not been sent to Iraq.

Morgan was hugely respected in journalistic circles as Britain’s youngest editor, was credited with Daily Mirror’s turnaround but was quickly fired by the publishers under Army and public pressure. It took him years before a job in the US allowed him to resurrect himself.

Read more: Meghan Markle files complaint against UK’s top host Piers Morgan

Episode exposed Pakistan’s Media Ethics and Civil Military Fault-lines 

This episode has exposed Pakistan’s civil-military divide, the media’s unprofessionalism, and the weakness of the governance system. Several prominent media persons and politicians were quick to take strong positions without having the slightest understanding of the chain of events – or without any desire to know.

Within minutes, in the late evening of May 25, several newspapers published accounts, almost identical to each other as if coming from the same source without an independent application of mind, almost all suggesting through innuendos that this was the work of the country’s intelligence agencies. No newspaper mentioned previous cases of defamation against him from Rauf Klasra or that a woman journalist had filed a complaint of harassment and intimidation against him – and that it was to be decided when this assault happened changing the dynamics.

One English newspaper, supposedly the largest and most respected in the country, took a strong moral position but did not even know if the event took place in F-10 or F-11 sector of Islamabad and reported that it was a scuffle outside Toor’s apartment complex.

Read more: Pakistan’s failed media- a conspiracy?

While many unknown characters kept talking nonsense and spewing hatred against the country’s institutions on Twitter it was especially disheartening to see some senior journalists exhibiting biliary reactions and making objectionable personal commentaries without any sense of responsibility. Emotion rather than reason and logic have been hallmarks of Pakistani media anyway.

The print media concept that reporters will break stories with solid sources, saved on their pocket notebooks, was trashed by tv journalism where Anchors were under pressure of ratings to break their own news in live brodcasts. The old fashioned concept that current affairs programs will discuss and dissect the known and published news was long dead.

With the arrival of social media, whatever supervision or safeguards existed due to several layers inside a media organization have disappeared. Now anyone with a Facebook wall, Twitter handle, YouTube, or Instagram account is a journalist or “opinionated citizen”.

In established western states laws of libel, slander and defamation were strong and they have quickly adjusted to this new reality. Pakistani laws and their implementation were notoriously weak. The fact that many Pakistani businessmen successfully sued Pakistani media organisations and persons inside the UK where Ofcom and British courts fined heavy penalties to channels on offending content proves this point.

Checks in Pakistan were never legal, these were structural inside old media. The rise of cyberspace has further eroded whatever checks existed in Pakistan because of the multi-layered traditional media organization. This episode has further exposed these weaknesses and the world of chaos that awaits Pakistan.

In the recent episode, the only thing that united these diverse characters from media, politics, embassies and the NGOs on one platform was the assumption that Toor has been beaten by intelligence agencies -and that needs to be condemned.

Read more: Is Pakistan’s cyber security strong enough to protect the country?

It never bothered anyone that there was not the slightest of evidence, logic, or context to his allegations. What is the sum effect of all this unprofessionalism? It has further consolidated the view that one can get away with any irresponsible act if he plays the “journalist vs state” card. And that if you play it smartly you can get instantaneous international recognition and support and spread chaos in the country.

What most in media have not realised that the bizarre display of irresponsibility has further weakened the media’s prestige and moral authority for most of Pakistani citizens. No amount of shrill shouting by few journalists will now stop state authorities from bringing more detailed laws to regulate cyberspace. And sooner or later when state authorities push for more regulation, most citizens, bureaucracy, parents of young daughters, working women, and many journalists will now end up supporting such laws.

Writer is a prominent TV Anchor and Editor Global Village Space. Twitter: Moeed_Nj