A libel victory in a British court has posed a major challenge to the bare-knuckle style of Pakistani television channels that specialise in wild attacks on public figures, often at the behest of the country’s intelligence agencies.
Earlier this month, Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, a Dubai-based media tycoon who owns the Jang newspaper group and Geo television, won a significant victory against ARY, which like most other Pakistani television stations is answerable to British courts because it rebroadcasts in the UK.
The court found ARY guilty of making 24 separate defamatory claims against Rahman and ordered the channel to pay damages of £185,000. When costs are included ARY’s total bill is thought to be almost £3m.
Salman Raja, a leading lawyer, said Rahman’s victory would act as a deterrent because television stations could no longer rely on complaints getting lost in Pakistan’s dysfunctional legal system.
“The lack of judges, strikes by lawyers and delaying tactics mean a civil case can take 20 years to get resolved in Pakistan,” Raja said. “Even if you took it all the way to the Supreme Court, you might get damages of less than 15m Pakistani rupees [£115,000].”
ARY is also being sued in the UK by Mian Muhammad Mansha, a banking tycoon said to be one of Pakistan’s richest men, after the channel accused him of fraud.
Ofcom, the British media regulator, is also emerging as a forum for Pakistanis to complain about how they are treated by their own media.
In November the watchdog ruled in favour of Chaudhry Barjees Tahir, a government minister, who complained he had been unfairly treated by ARY when a programme accused him of corruption.
Ofcom also ruled in favour of the father of Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel prize-winning education activist who survived a Taliban assassination attempt in 2012.
The regulator said ARY had treated Ziauddin Yousafzai unfairly by not giving him an opportunity to respond to a programme featuring guests who alleged he had committed blasphemy and was a traitor “against Pakistan, its ideology, its very existence”.
Yousafzai has now launched a legal case for damages against ARY.
The UK is a lucrative media market, given the 1.7 million people with Pakistani links living in the country. Rahman has been publishing a daily Urdu paper in Britain since 1971.
But ARY’s crushing legal defeat highlights the stark contrast between the freewheeling journalistic standards of Pakistan and those in the UK, where media groups retain lawyers to check stories for potential libel.
In court ARY did not attempt to defend any of the lurid claims it had made against Rahman as true.
“No such defence could be properly pleaded, since there simply was no evidence to support it,” the ruling said.
Rahman was attacked during dozens of programmes in 2013-14 presented by Mubasher Lucman, a well-known anchor, who enlisted Islamic clerics to accuse the media owner of blasphemy and issue fatwas against him.
Lucman, who refused to appear in the London court, also repeatedly accused Rahman of committing treason and working for Indian intelligence.
One programme alleged that the Aman Ki Asha initiative, a long-running campaign by Geo to promote peace between Pakistan and India, was secretly funded by the Indian government and that Rahman had “therefore lied to and betrayed the people of Pakistan”, the judgment said.
The themes of disloyalty and working for Pakistan’s arch-rival India echo those discreetly promoted to journalists by some military officers.
“Much of this slanderous content is aired to serve political or military interests,” said Huma Yusuf, a commentator. “This is a significant ruling because it will allow media groups to push back – they’ll be able to argue to soften the rhetoric to avoid the same fate as ARY.
Rahman fell out spectacularly with the country’s powerful military establishment in 2013 when Geo aired incendiary claims that the head of the army’s intelligence wing had attempted to assassinate one of its leading journalists.
The army responded by demanding the cancellation of Geo’s broadcasting licence. Cable television providers were persuaded to drop the channel and rivals piled in with attacks on the station.
Quatrina Hosain, a journalist, said some anchors need little external encouragement to launch defamatory attacks on public figures and commercial rivals.
“Unfortunately, these kinds of wild allegations are very popular,” she said. “But the irresponsible remarks by some anchors have stirred up extremists and can literally put people’s lives in danger.”
Courtesy: The Guardian.