Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Lessons from a Sacking

The unique position of the media - as a watchdog of public interest, it has the power to question public representatives and to demolish their carefully constructed facades - has always been open to abuse. Simply put, it is often up to the ingrained ethics of individual journalists or the monitoring power of the media organizations that employ them, to prevent this extraordinary power from being misused and from journalists using their access for personal profit. We have often written about such abuse of power among reporters / analysts on the political beat. Of course, it is not just political reporters who can sometimes be guilty of inappropriate behaviour.

A recent incident involving a Voice of America (VoA) reporter and the Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) is a good reminder of how important it is for the media to monitor itself and to double-check facts.

Before relating the incident, however, a couple of caveats and disclaimers:

1. We are not commenting on the merits of the allegations from either side, simply because these are contested and we are not in a position to judge their authenticity.

2. This incident has no bearing on (at least) my position regarding the PHF or the person of PHF Secretary Asif Bajwa, currently under attack from scores of former Olympians after Pakistan's abysmal showing in the World Cup in Delhi. As far as I am concerned, Bajwa should have resigned after the World Cup debacle, probably simply on moral grounds.

Sardar Khan (left) addressing a press conference against the PHF

In any case, the whole issue began when VoA contributor Sardar Khan filed an audio report on VoA Urdu (no longer available on the website), claiming that PHF Secretary Asif Bajwa had admitted that Pakistan lost to lowly-ranked Poland in a qualifier on purpose so as to have an easier opponent in the final of the qualifier tournament in Lille, France. In the words of the English report circulated by Sardar Khan himself on April 14:

"As if Pakistan’s worst ever 12th position in the recently concluded hockey world cup in New Delhi was not enough that led the former Olympians to call for Asif Bajwa’s head, the sacked manager of Pakistan team and reigning secretary of Pakistan hockey federation (PHF) Asif Bajwa, in an exclusive interview to Voice of America (VOA) has made the shocking disclosure that Pakistan lost its league match to Poland purposely in world cup qualifying tournament (WQC) held in Lille as part of strategy to avoid hosts France in the final.

It may be remembered that PHF President Qasim Zia had sacked the team management comprising of manager Asif Bajwa and chief coach Shahid Ali Khan as well as the whole selection committee after Pakistan’s humiliating display in 2010 world cup.

When asked that how come star studded Pakistan team lost its league match to minnows like Poland on 7th, Nov 2009 in WCQ tournament in France, Bajwa made this shocking revelation that “ I don’t want to justify that defeat but I want to tell you that it was part of the strategy. Had Pakistan beaten Poland, Pakistan could face host France in the final that Pakistan wanted to avoid as in that case, France could win and would have qualified for the final rounds of the world cup”.

“It was part of our planning, we fielded our second string in the match in order to ensure that we faced Japan in the WCQ tournament final instead of France, Bajwa said”.

When asked that deliberately losing a match is not only against the spirit of fair play but it also comes under the parameters of Match fixing, Bajwa said, “ I don’t call it match fixing but a strategy and planning. We rested our key players in order to be better equipped in the final against Japan”.

When VOA pressed that even despite resting senior players Pakistan was not a team to be beaten by Poland, Bajwa replied, “ I am not justifying the defeat and I admit that Pakistan should not have lost but what I am saying is that our planning worked well and we qualified for 2010 world cup”.

It is worth pointing out that after finishing 12th in 2010 world cup, allegations were echoed by many including former Olympian and coach Shahnaz Shaikh suggesting that he smelled rat of match fixing or under performance that led to disasters humiliation. Now this bombshell from sitting PHF secretary Asif Bajwa suggests that a high level investigation should be carried out to find out the hidden reasons of debacle.

Muhammad Shafiq, one of the sacked selector in the aftermath of world cup, told VOA that it was not a team that could finish at 12th position so an inquiry be set up and responsible should be brought to book."

Now, obviously such a report is a bombshell and was immediately picked up by wire agencies and reproduced in most newspapers in Pakistan. Dawn, however, decided against running the report and, in fact, ran Bajwa's version the next day. Bajwa strenuously contested the report, claiming that his words were twisted and taken out of context:

“I never said we lost the match intentionally,” said Bajwa angrily. “I only mentioned that our loss against Poland may have been a blessing in disguise as it saved us from facing France in the final. But my words have been twisted by the VOA correspondent who has been distorting my other statements in the past as well.”

Bajwa went on to add: “I mean just think about it. Why would someone even bring up or make an issue about a match we lost some six months ago? It was this very correspondent who had misreported that I had compared our former players to ‘old model cars’ whereas I had merely mentioned that old playing methods to today’s techniques are akin to old cars and the newer ones. But my words were twisted to make it seem like I had aimed them at our seniors whom I respect very much.”

When asked what motive did this scribe have in maligning him in the press, Bajwa said: “This scribe was not recommended for the FIH media committee and the Asian Hockey media committee in 2008 despite his wishes. Since then he has found all kinds of ways to misquote and embarrass me in the media. Of late, he has come out as an active member of the campaign launched against me by the Olympians. But he needs to realise that whatever he blames me for was not my doing. It was former PHF President Zafarullah Jamali’s doing and he did it even before I arrived on the scene.”

  PHF Secretary Asif Bajwa: trading fire (Photo: Dawn / APP)

While we cannot confirm Bajwa's allegations of Sardar Khan's motives - which may in fact be defamatory as well - some other journalists seem to confirm his allegations of partiality on the part of the VoA reporter. According to one journalist covering the Olympians' front against Bajwa (as told directly to Cafe Pyala):

"I noticed that the VoA reporter Sardar Khan was doing more than just report. He was arranging venues for holding the meetings like inviting them over to the Karachi Press Club, etc. He would also sit with the former players on the stage during the rallies."

Nevertheless, Khan in a letter to Dawn, demanded a retraction of the story under threat of legal action. The resulting flap was so great that VoA heads were forced to step in. On April 23, the head of VoA's Urdu Section wrote the following letter to the PHF Secretary, which was eventually made public by the PHF:

"Dear Mr. Bajwa,

I wish to express our profound regret for airing the Sardar Khan report.

As soon as I read your objections to the report in the Pakistani media saying the reporter twisted your words, my most senior managers and I demanded the full unedited interview and compared it to the dispatch Sardar Khan submitted to us.

We concluded that Sardar Khan tampered with your comments to twist the meaning.  This is completely unethical and irresponsible and in violation of VOA News' own code of conduct.

We owe you more than an apology and are taking the following steps to address any blemish Sardar Khan's report may have had on the Pakistan Hockey Federation.

1) On Tuesday, April 21^st , I informed Sardar Khan (who is not an employee of VOA, but a freelance reporter who had contributed reports to our programs) that we had lost confidence in his work and he damaged his own and VOA's credibility. We immediately severed our relationship.  He is banned from submitting work to VOA News.

2) We are issuing a formal apology and retraction of the report which is being posted on our Website and will be aired on VOA's radio shows.

3) We are writing a formal letter of apology to you personally and to the Pakistan Hockey Federation.

In meantime, please accept this email.

I completely understand your decision as Secretary-General of the PakistanHockey Federation, but hope our actions may restore your opinion of VOA Urdu. We value the time and access the Pakistan Hockey Federation gives reporters.

Yours truly,

Jennifer Janin
Chief, VOA Urdu Broadcasting to Pakistan"

Sardar Khan claims he was treated unfairly and is consulting his lawyers for further action. However, it must be said that the VoA chief's letter is pretty damning. It is not a small matter for a news organization to issue a blanket apology and no news organization likes to do that. There must have been serious problems with the way the quotes were used for VoA to issue such a mea culpa.

The lessons all media organizations and journalists must take away from this little episode are:

1. Particularly in cases of such sensitive allegations, ensure that the facts are correct.
2. While quoting other media, ensure that you have done your own check of facts - the original source could be wrong.
3. Call out journalists who may be overstepping the ethics line, even if they are colleagues, and support the weeding out of bad eggs. (Of course, back up journalists in the face of defamation and unfair pressure as well!)
4. Set in place some sort of feedback and monitoring system that ensures that journalists do not feel that no one is monitoring their "angling" of a story or their actions.
5. Do not subscribe to the notion of "by any means necessary" - using wrong tactics to go after someone who you think deserves to be gone after, is equally problematic and unethical and does journalism no service.
6. And for God's sake, know that activism is not the essential component of a reporter's job. Half the problems that arise between even well-meaning journalists and others are because of a misplaced sense of what exactly a journalist's job entails. It is not a reporter's job to be holding press conferences for or against people / organizations he is supposed to cover. Remind yourself daily of the need to at least be perceived as impartial.


Hamza said...

You really have to give credit to VOA team. With the possible exception of Dawn, I doubt any Pakistani newspaper would issue such a retraction.

The Jang group, for instance, would probably continue to spread lies, just because it gets them higher ratings/readership.

Ahsan said...

^ Yes absolutely.

And Pyalas, I would make a list of lessons for those people who have borne the brunt of BS from the media (Hamid Mir, Ansar Abbasi etc etc):

1. Name and shame, call these buggers out, and ask their editors to reproduce recordings of "interviews" they claim to have done.

2. Uh, that's it.

Sa'adia said...

Excellent post, Pyala. Media organisations certainly need to take measures, but I feel that at the end of the day, it's the journalist's ethical and moral sense that plays the decisive role.

Anonymous said...

Sardar Khan met his fate rather late. He should have been exposed a long time ago. One, because he is no journalist, in fact far from it, an unscrupulous showroom owner and publicity seeker who forever aspires to be a kingmaker of sorts.

And secondly because he invariably tries to slight respectable officials, players in public in a bid to go one up on everyone. All he ends up doing is bring the profession into disrepute.
He has finally met his Waterloo, thank God.

know it all said...

Very informative post. Good work Pyala. VOA definitely deserves credit for how they handled the matter and is an ardent lesson for our media, which in spite of many credits, has its own view of ethics.

Case in point---A Q Khan, while writing for The News, plagiarised material for one of his articles from the Imperial College website or info given to entering students (I forget which). This was pointed out in a letter by a student from Imperial College, which reproduced the material AQ had plagiarized. But although News published the letter, no action was taken. A Q continues to write opeds for the paper. Go figure!

Omar R Quraishi said...

know it all said -- dear mr know it all -- i was the editor of the editorial pages of the news at that time, and apart from reproducing that letter in which the plagiarism was pointed out, many letters were carried, some of which said quite clearly that perhaps the doctor had plagiarised the n-weapon plans as well -- this was all published -- and eventually he apologised and said that he had been misled by someone who had sent him information -- so it's not as if only the one letter was published --

i may also add that two well known (one of them a 'big name') columnists at the news were found plagiarising and both were black listed for good -- so have the facts in hand the next time you make an allegatin

know it all said...

Mr. Omar Quraishi---I remember reading all those letters in The News. I don't think I said in my last post that only one letter was published. I was only making reference to the most relevant letter which had exposed AQ red-handed. Yet when I say "no action was taken" I mean that he was not barred from writing opeds. I was quite shocked at that. Printing the letters is one thing---it is good---but something as serious as plagiarism needs to be taken seriously enough so that the relationship with the columnist in question is severed---like VOA severed its relationship with Sardar Khan. I don't know about the other two big name columnists you are referring to, nor would I claim to know more about this than you do. But perhaps you can answer this for me: why the different standards for those two columnists as opposed to AQ?

I think plagiarism is a very serious issue in our society. Unfortunately, I have seen even LUMS professors do it---one of whom I caught red-handed. Small wonder then that when our students go abroad, they often don't realize what a serious issue it is!

Omar R Quraishi said...

you caught red-handed!? do tell

know it all said...

Mr. Quraishi--even though you have not answered my question (maybe u have nothing to say in response) I will answer yours. I was on a political discussion email list, which included this gentleman (a Lums prof) who, in order to prove his point, cut and paste sentences from wikipedia (no less) and passed them off as his own thinking. What's more is that he did it selectively, omitting what did not suit his argument, but pasting what did. When I read it, it sounded too wikipedia'ish so I logged on and my suspicion was correct!

Now, as far as my initial post re AQ goes, it was not even meant as an allegation against you and I don't know why u r being so defensive about it. I know you were oped editor at the time, and also suspect that the decision to keep AQ on as a columnist was probably not yours (was it?) so I wasn't really blaming u for it. As a matter of fact, I thought that on the whole u did a pretty good job at The News and have praised you often for it in discussions I have had with others. But your attitude here is making me think twice about that. Btw, on the AQ issue, I don't think publishing letters about him stealing nuclear weapon plans was called for either (that's just sensationalism and mirch masala instead of addressing the real issue of plagiarism)---I think it would have been best if News could have acted the way VOA did--i.e., apologized to its readers about the plagiarism, esp to the young readers, and announced a severing of the relationship with AQ. What u r calling his apology was more like a list of untenable excuses.

Omar R Quraishi said...

wow -- so your good impression of my three and a half years there is going to be irreversibly sullied by my two posts here -- this is hardly the forum for me to discuss any such thing, especially with an interactor who chooses to remain anonymous -- i was not being defensive -- merely clarifying since you (and prob others reading this) clearly did not know that two writers who were caught plagiarising were blacklisted for good

-- publishing letters saying that he stole nuclear secrets with no peg would be 'mirch masala' as you say but in the context of him lifting verbatim sections from another website, or helping him doing so, does not constitute 'mirch masala' but fair comment -- since that would be a direct extraplation

Omar R Quraishi said...

your contributions would be more valuable if you wrote under your real name - that is my point and which is why i never mind anon postings -- as for CPM and XYZ i suppose they can do so because it's their site -- and yes I do happen to know who they are --
like i said earlier know it all (you are the one who thinks rahimullah is a bad writer in english -- hahahaha) this is hardly the forum for me to give you or anyone else inside scoops on what goes on at my present or previous workplace. Surely you dont expect editors to discuss 'inside stuff' on a website such as this -- and btw i visit dozens of websites on a daily basis, including many that relate to the journalism -- that doesnt necessarily give them any validity per se

know it all said...

Omar Quraishi---now why exactly would my contributions be more valuable under my real name? What if you were my boss? Do you think I could be posting what I have posted?

And incidentally, you like to flaunt your little pieces of knowledge like telling us about two 'big name' columnists who were black-listed but not go into any detail or address adequately any of the other issues under discussion. As you can see from the other thread on JC's piece, most people agree with my comment about the fact that not explicitly saying it is a translation is a deception---yet you had nothing to say about that but just pick on one little thing. Honestly, it makes you look stupid.

XYZ said...

@know it all AND @Omar R Quraishi: Ok folks, let's stop this personal battle now. Really.

Omar R Quraishi said...

xyz -- wow -- this site is almost becoming like an elementary school -- btw while you're at it why not clean up some of the other comment boards as well -- also where were you when some not v charitable remarks were posted against abbas nasir on one of the boards -- if this is personal i wonder what those were

know it all -- no one was flaunting anything -- you spoke of a q khan -- and i clarified that that wasnt the only instance -- that's all -- good for you what people say about your views on translation

Umair J said...

@knowitall I need to know the name of the LUMS professor you caught plagiarizing.

know it all said...

@Umair J---since I am not giving out my own name here I think it would be wrong of me to give his. But there were about 40 other people on that email list who witnessed this---including a couple of other lums prof's.

Omar R Quraishi said...


Umair J said...

forgive me for being a disbeliever but the odds of a LUMS prof. copy pasting from wikipedia on a public discussion list are quite low. Unless he was someone from the maths department (not to belittle them in anyway)

know it all said...

@ Omar Quraishi---ignore

@ Umair J--you don't have to believe me if you don't want to but as I said there are about 40 other witnesses to this. Why would I make this up? There are many very sound people teaching at lums and on the whole we are very fortunate to have the institution, but not everyone who gets a teaching position there is immune from flaws.

Anonymous said...

The former VoA reporter really misused his position by blackmailing several sports federations and other organisations into doing what he wanted them to do. There is a very average player in the women's cricket team today, who happens to be his niece (younger sister's daughter). He also got his other niece a job with VoA.
Coming back to the main topic of discussion here, sports journalism brings with it so many opportunities for exploiting the profession. Sadly, there are few honest members of the media covering sports today.