The original sin | Fahd Husain


Is it the dawn of a new era?

The sound and fury engulfing the so-called ‘Dawn Leaks’ issue camouflaged the most important aspect of the entire affair while exposing a dangerous lack of basic comprehension on the part of two of the three key stakeholders. Make no mistake: the effect of the affair may have been uneasily resolved but the real cause continues to fester like an open wound.

The Dawn story ballooned into a full-blown civil-military crisis, as is now well established, and divided players, politicians and the commentariat into two opposing camps. Terms like ‘treason’, ‘breach of national security’ and ‘undermining democracy’ were hurled like bolts of lightning at opponents as the battle lumbered towards a crescendo. Primal loathing broke ruptured the thin veneer of democratic consensus and rattled the optimism of the naïve. It was back to the bad old days of the nineties.
Except this time there was a twist in the tale. The climax turned into a rather anti-climactic conclusion as the warlords retreated to a tent adjacent to the battlefield and worked out a treaty before a rain of arrows could be unleashed.

But wait.

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The civil-military divide may have been bridged but a new yawning chasm has opened up: the shocking ignorance of state and society about the role of the media in a democratic polity.

Allow me to then reiterate in unequivocal terms: the story penned by Cyril Almeida and approved and defended by his Editor Zaffar Abbas was not a breach of national security. The establishment was wrong to react the way it did. So was the government. There should not have been a public investigation. There should not have been a JIT. There should not have been such an ill-considered reaction from political parties like the PTI and the PPP. The reporter did no wrong. The editor did no wrong. It was a legitimate story, albeit a bit loosely written (but that’s a different thing altogether).

In all mature media markets stories are published and aired which elicit the ire of governments or armed forces. If the White House or the Pentagon were to react to every story based on leaks, most reporters of the New York Times would have been strung up. In a truly democratic system (which we are not, yet), the media has an ingrained adversarial relationship with power centres. There is more to life than the Official Secrets Act.

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Cyril Almeida wrote a story which he believed was well-sourced. The story did not have on-the record quotes or confirmation from any responsible people and therefore the reader could not be faulted for being skeptical. Stories based exclusively on unnamed sources are inherently ‘weaker’ than those that have on-the-record confirmation (or even quasi-confirmation) from named people. And yet stories like Almeida’s based on unnamed sources are not a rarity in journalism the world over. That’s where the role of the editor comes in. He or she has to then step in and decide if he is satisfied with the veracity of the unnamed sources. The editor has a number of ways to do this one of which is to actually ask the reporter to confide about the sources to him. The editor therefore makes the final call on whether to carry the story or not and if so, how much to ‘flash’ it in terms of display, page, etc. This entire process is premised on professional judgments honed over decades of experience — exactly the kind of experience that the editor of Dawn Zaffar Abbas has.

Once the story was published and a storm whipped up, the newspaper did what newspapers across the world in mature media markets do: it prominently carried a clarification. Now at this point the matter should have ended, just like it would have in any mature media market.

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It didn’t. Let’s dissect what wrongs were committed:

The contents of the meeting between the civil and military leadership should not have leaked. In this story, the military leadership came out looking bad. Did the leaker(s) of the story have this particular outcome in mind? Did they want to put the other side on the defensive? And if so, why? If what was written in Almeida’s story actually transpired (and it seems it did given the harsh reaction) then it also signalled that the civil and military leadership had now reached a mature level of dialogue that they could freely discuss such critical issues and even agree to tighten the leash on the militant organisations. The discussion showed that a consensus was developing to gradually change a policy that desperately needs to be changed.

All would have been fine had this not been made public. The outcome of this grievously bad decision has rolled back much progress developing between the civil and military leadership.

And yet here’s the important point: The wrong was committed by the leaker and not by the reporter and his editor.

Was the military leadership right to react the way it did? Yes and no. Yes because it rightly felt that the leak of information amounted to a breach of trust. And not because making such a ‘national security’ issue out of it and gunning for the newspaper amounted to whipping up a storm in a teacup.

What should have been the right course of action?

Step 1: Issue a carefully worded denial that focuses less on trashing the contents of the story and more on effort by the leadership to combat terror. The clarification could have denied the adversarial dialogue and dramatisation within quotation marks in the story while taking care not to whip up charges of treason and national security.

Step 2: Hold a meeting between stakeholders behind closed doors to find out who leaked the information. Read the riot act to the concerned, if necessary.

Step 3: Launch an investigation away from the public eye.

Step 4: Take punitive action based on the evidence.

Since such a course was not followed, the affair became a public spectacle. The reactions from the likes of Imran Khan, Khursheed Shah, Aitzaz Ahsan, Asad Umar, etc, are a stark reminder that politicians themselves are willing to invoke notions of national security where none exist. Today we live in a post-Dawn Leaks Pakistan where the media is less secure than before; where the slightest challenge to the state can legitimately be converted into a national security crises; where leaking of information (a normal part of life in democracies) has become a cognisable offence and where even a failure to stop the publishing of a news report can amount to a crime.

The civil-military divide may have been bridged for now, but in the larger scheme of things, we are worse off than before. Take a moment to let this sink in.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 14th, 2017.

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