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FUDGED STORY: A series of scandals has shaken faith in the impartiality of TV journalists, writes Declan Walsh
NOT long ago, judges and journalists were clearly on the same team in Pakistan, revelling in a shared crusade to expose the corrupt, hold the powerful to account and reshape the dynamics of a fragile democracy. Now, following a cascade of explosive scandals, they are at each other's throats.
For a week, the country has been gripped by a drumroll of revelations: lurid corruption accusations against the family of the populist chief justice; dramatic television appearances by his billionaire accuser; angry judges threatening legal action against a major television station; and a leaked video exposing sham journalism at its worst.
The drama is still unfolding. But few doubt that it has already wounded the integrity of the buccaneering Supreme Court chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who faces sharp criticism of his judgment that could threaten his job. And it has raised pressing questions for the burgeoning television news channels, which have acquired great influence in Pakistani public life but now face accusations of becoming an entrenched part of what is wrong with the country.
"The credibility of the electronic media is at stake," said Raza Rumi, policy director of the Jinnah Institute, a policy group in Islamabad.
"This is starting to look like the scam of the year."
For now, the scandal is focused on Dunya News, a major television channel. On Friday, the Supreme Court ordered an inquiry of Dunya after it broadcast an interview with Malik Riaz Hussain, a real estate developer who claims to have given US$3.7 million (RM11.6 million) in bribes to Chaudhry's son Arsalan Iftikhar in the hope of swaying court cases.
What shocked ordinary Pakistanis was not the interview -- Hussain had already made similar accusations in court -- but rather evidence that it had been rigged. Leaked studio footage, shot just before the programme went live and during breaks, showed the hosts, Meher Bokhari and Mubashir Luqman, chatting cozily with Hussain, discussing the questions and priming his answers.
"Why don't you start talking about it yourself, otherwise it will seem planted, which it is," Bokhari is seen telling him in Urdu.
The other host, meanwhile, takes a call from a son of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani -- whom Chaudhry has pursued unstintingly -- and hands his phone to Hussain.
The scandal has perturbed many Pakistanis because the television revolution is one of the bright spots of the past decade. As regulations were relaxed, the channels shot to prominence during the struggle for democracy in 2007.
TV reporters offered urgent coverage of angry judges and lawyers as they surged through the streets that year, backed by huge crowds seeking new freedoms and the end of Gen. Pervez Musharraf's military-led government.
Since then, television has become an important element of Pakistani politics. Every evening, millions of people watch the evening chat shows, which offer a racy mix of breaking news, bare-knuckle debate and spicy conspiracy theories.
The TV anchors who preside over this gladiatorial arena, many of them women, are considered celebrities and remunerated accordingly: One senior television executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said salaries reach US$32,000 a month, in a country with a per-capita income below US$250 a month.
Television coverage has made politicians more responsive to public opinion, opened new debates on previously taboo topics and introduced a new level of accountability -- even among the all-powerful military.
The news shows have helped sway public opinion at crucial junctures: In 2009, video of a Pakistani Taliban fighter whipping a young woman shored up public opinion for a military drive against the militant group in the Swat Valley in northwestern Pakistan.
But the television revolution has also, in some respects, been bad news for Pakistan.
Some shows have given an unchallenged platform to extremists like Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the founder of the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, for whom the United States has offered a US$10 million bounty. Conservative ulama have used the airwaves to reinforce prejudice and even urge violence against minorities. Editorial independence is sometimes curtailed by the businessmen who own the stations and unashamedly use them to peddle their interests.
Controversy also surrounds the anchors, some of whom view themselves as players on the national stage rather than impartial observers of its machinations.
Bokhari, who was co-presenter of the Dunya programme, billed as a special transmission, accused Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, of blasphemy on air in December 2010; days later Taseer's bodyguard shot him dead for the same reason.
In January, Maya Khan, a morning television host, caused outrage by starting a drive to roust dating couples from a public park in Karachi. Khan lost her job but was quickly snapped up by a rival channel.
The industry's internal unity has crumbled, however, in the face of Hussain's accusations.
Since last week, two senior presenters have engaged in mudslinging on Twitter, accusing each other of taking bribes. Dunya News has blamed a rival, Geo TV, for its woes and issued a statement accusing it of conspiring with "nefarious elements".
The chief justice's predicament had also drawn battle lines between the stations. Geo has vigorously supported Chaudhry, while others have taken a more critical stance.
"The media is taking quite a battering," said Matiullah Jan, an investigative reporter who once presented a show on corruption and malpractice in the news media.
"In the absence of self-accountability, the problem is going out of the control."
But, Jan added, the Supreme Court was making a mistake in using the media's shortcomings to deflect attention from its own corruption scandals. NYT