Slander land | Talat Hussain


Of all the weird news in the month of December, such as snowfall in the desert and a woman growing a full beard, the one that must have appeared the weirdest to Pakistani ears and eyes has come from the London High Court’s Justice Sir David Eady. In a path-breaking decision on defamation against the ARY channel, the court ruled that all allegations that the channel had levelled against the owner of Geo/Jang Group, Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman (MSR) – related to treason, blasphemy, fronting for foreign agencies – have no foundation and are completely false.

The court awarded one of the highest ever damages of GBP185,000 in favour of the aggrieved party, MSR. ARY will reportedly lose about GDB3 million (nearly 40 crore rupees) including its own legal expenses. What’s more, the court ordered, for the first time in the history of the UK’s Defamation Law 2013, that ARY should broadcast the summary of the judgement. This the channel did in the clumsiest possible way, removing its logos and tickers and fast-pacing the audio to the extent that the whole sense of the matter was lost. The channel has also been restrained through injunction from further broadcasting these false accusations.

Why should all this sound unearthly to the general audience in Pakistan? The reason is simple. We live in slander-land. Here everything goes by way of accusations and nobody ever gets penalised for, or forced to admit, falsehood in any case. Here shredding reputations is sport. Trashing names is fun. We laugh and help our lungs grow stronger by inhaling calumny. The bigger the lie, the more resounding it is made by passing it on. The greater the untruth, the wider the mouth that stretches to unload it.

So if someone shrugs in reaction to the London High Court judgement and says ‘what’s the big deal?’ it is understandable. We have come to believe that making minced meat of others is totally kosher, and that to be penalised for such ‘small’ things is silly. But the advanced world and its institutions work on different assumptions. They make a clear distinction between falsehood and truth, lies and facts, hate campaigns and investigative stories, journalism and mud-slinging. And, above all, they work on the prime principle that every reputation matters. So the London High Court was not amused when it saw the volume of scurrility and the total absence of facts from the contents of the broadcast of the channel.

The court noted that ARY’s conduct in court during the course of the proceedings was “plainly oppressive, unreasonably and unacceptable” and calculated to “arouse hatred”. The facts that came out were staggering even for those of us who had been watching this matter from the ringside seat: ARY globally ran 224 hours of hateful campaign. It aired 11,100 news items (including stories and tickers), 113 programmes and altogether 264 times accused Jang/Geo and MSR of treason. It incited violence against the channel and its editor-in-chief, using lies based on religious references. How many times? A total of 1880.

The British court also noted that the editor-in-chief of Geo and Jang could have won the case on technical points as the burden of proof was on ARY. The judge said that there was nothing more MSR could do to establish innocence. The judge noted that the man was loyal to Pakistan and that he regarded the country as “the home of his heart”.

This is British law. These are ‘gora’ courts. This is foreign justice. And for all those who are so fond of quoting the Magna Carta (without bothering to find out what it actually is) and citing British democracy as their role model for Pakistan and yet indulging in falsehood of the highest order, the situation in Pakistan of similar cases is presented below.

Seventeen similar cases are pending before courts besides two complaints before Pemra. In these cases courts have directed the accusers to stop defaming Geo/Jang and its heads but to no avail. The avalanche of slurs continues to roll. Some of the accusers have been summoned as many as 44 and 37 times and they do not either bother to show up, or do so after every nine or so hearings. Arrest warrants have become a joke. Nothing is good enough to make anyone accept the wrong being committed in the name of freedom of speech. The mills of lies continue to churn out malevolence without any let or hindrance.

The culture of tolerance for abuse of others has reached a point where it is now threatening to break down systems and knock out its key components through the sheer force of accusations. In our country today, the sitting prime minister, the sitting army chief, the sitting chief justice (as indeed the previous one) have all been targeted and brutally attacked through designed campaigns, some of which are the furthest from the truth and absolutely spiteful. And yet not a single individual, entity or group has been found guilty of the act of defamation; nor has anyone been made to pay up the damages. This is the new normal in Pakistan.

The false question marks raised over the heads of important institutions continue to hang, for unsuspecting eyes, destructive of trust. To be accused falsely is to be wounded deeply. And where the mechanism to set the record straight is not even close to as efficient as the London High Court has been, it is easy to understand that the damage done is a loss for life.

The London case is not significant because Geo/Jang and its owner have won. (It would have been just as important and comment worthy if ARY had won a similar case against their defamers). It is important because it underlines what law, when applied ruthlessly without exception, can achieve by way of redemption for the victim.

The same broadcasts have run (and they continue to run) in Pakistan, notching up some viewership and becoming part of the political discourse. We have had situations where the lowest-end of personal attacks were hailed as ‘proof’, and those involved in the dirtiest possible campaigns honoured and anointed in political rallies as Pakistan’s best journalists. Imagine if in the first instance of a libellous attack on an individual or an institution the case could be taken to a court that could do justice by a combination of financial penalty, payment of damages and a binding injunction for an unequivocal apology. Would the present vituperative circus then have expanded its performance to the extent that it has? Or would it have folded up and gone for good? Gone for good seems like a safe bet.

The other issue the case highlights is the cost involved in getting your name cleared – minus, of course, personal agony and mental torture for which there is no computing possible. Geo sources say that the loss to the group on account of damages to its brand is near Rs18 billion. The ridicule that follows all such campaigns (which is their real purpose) lasts longer than the financial hit. Other dangers are more palpable and existential: threats to life. We have seen the consequences of media slander resulting in murder and killing. The accused is made a target. Anyone is then free to take a shot.

The most important point, however, is about those who don’t have the resources and resolve that Geo/Jang commanded to fight for personal and institutional redemption. Ordinary mortals who are subjected to the tyranny of abuse and venomous lies have no defence available except to continue on the wing of the prayer that they may live to see the day when their accusers stand in the full glare of publicity without a shred on them to hide their shame.

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.