By Waseem Abbasi

Courtesy Getty Images

Editor’s Note: The writer is an investigative/ data journalist based in Islamabad and working for The News. He has worked for the leading national and international media such as the USA Today. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.  

Islamabad: Recently, Pakistan Peoples Party’s Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was a panellist in a discussion held at the World Economic Forum in Davos, about the threats posed by the fake news to democracy. In his views, big business models pose a threat to real journalism in Pakistan. In his recent interview on Pakistan’s Geo News, Bilawal again complained that fake news is hurting his democratic party.

“Fake News is nothing new for us in Pakistan, especially PPP has been affected by it in the past,” Bilawal said when asked about the spread of fake news worldwide. Bilawal was refuting the reports of MNA Faryal Talpur contesting Senate elections.

The booming business of fake news is not only misguiding millions of news consumers but also eroding the credibility of media in the eyes of the public. In a recent survey conducted by this year, 57.5 percent of 1,705 respondents felt fake news was a major problem in Pakistan. The Chairman of mainstream Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Bilawal Bhutto Zardari spoke about the problem of fake news at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos.

After the election of President Trump in the United States and allegations of Russian meddling, fake news has emerged as a threat to democracy everywhere. Pakistan is no exception. A relatively vibrant and free electronic media had played a critical role in strengthening democracy in Pakistan, a country that remained under dictatorship for almost half of its age ever since getting independence from the British rule in 1947.

Second successive democratic government is about to complete its five-year tenure in next few months. However, fake news has now emerged as a major challenge to the country’s nascent democracy.

The horrific incident of Kasur has once again highlighted the challenge being posed by fake news in Pakistan. After the brutal rape and murder of six-year-old Zainab in Kasur, social media users started spreading conspiracy theories of all kinds in the disguise of exclusive news.

Social media and some sensational blogs are a major culprit in promoting fake news but unfortunately, Pakistan’s mainstream media is not immune to the problem either. Sadly, some TV channels picked up “stories” from those blogs and social media accounts. It was hinted that some top government officials are involved in series of rapes and murders of minor girls in Kasur.

Even after the arrest of accused Imran Ali by the Punjab police, the fake news did not stop. One particular prime-time anchor managed to get the attention of the Supreme Court of Pakistan by coining the story that the Kasur suspect had 37 accounts in Pakistani banks.

According to Dr Shahid Masood, a well-known TV anchor, the accused was a member of international racket involved in child pornography and some cabinet members in Pakistan are also part of the heinous crime.

Such was the seriousness of his claims that the Chief Justice and senior judges of the Supreme Court sat on the weekend to hear him and other top TV anchors of Pakistan to confirm the veracity of his claims. The anchor, however, could not substantiate his claims in the court with evidence. But he still refused to apologize or admit that he was involved in spreading fake news.

This was not the first incident of fake news being spread through mainstream media. In the absence of any institutional mechanism to counter fake news or any ethical tradition of apologizing for the wrong facts, Pakistani TV channels had been caught on numerous times spreading sensational but wrong information as ‘news’.

In 2014, during Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf sit-in outside the parliament, fake news had been churned out almost daily on the various channels. One television channel had claimed that the parliament was going to demand the resignation of the then Army Chief General Raheel Sharif.

Another claimed that General Raheel had asked the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to tender resignation. The stories tuned out fake but no apology was offered by any of the TV channels.

Last year,  Bol news channel owned by the tainted IT firm Axact ran a sensational story about the most corrupt families in the world quoting US TV channel Fox News. The list also included a former ruling family of Pakistan. The channel ran special transmission discussing that list.

However, it was later found out that the story was never published by Fox News on their website and it was a typical fake news ran by a website containing Foxnews in URL address with some amendments, a practice common in the dissemination of fake news. Even after the truth came out Bol News did not apologize.

Recently another Pakistan TV channel also claimed that former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had agreed to live in exile in Saudi Arabia. It was reported that Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif are being interrogated in Saudi Arabia “for their alleged corruption”.

Another anchor had claimed a few months ago that Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was about to dissolve parliament to force early elections. Another story by a Pakistani TV journalist even made it to a supposedly respected British newspaper The Times. The story claimed that Nawaz is ready to live in exile under a deal brokered by rulers in Riyadh.

Even when the news of former prime minister’s return to Pakistan was flashing on TV, the said reporter was still claiming his story was correct. No apology was offered for the fake/incorrect news.

Some TV anchors spread fake news almost daily in their shows but rarely we see an apology from them for the stories that turn out wrong. Some of them even play fake videos and doctored pictures in their programmes as legitimate evidence against their targets.

When I spoke to a few media managers, they blamed Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) for not doing enough against fake news as a regulator. However former Chairman Absar Alam told me that Pemra had been active against fake news and several channels were fined and a number of anchors were banned by Pemra for spreading lies during his two-year tenure which ended abruptly when the Lahore High Court ruled his appointment illegal.

He further said Pemra had tried to implement its law against such anchors but unknown people started threatening Pemra officials to protect such so-called “anchors”. He said the higher courts also started giving restraining orders against Pemra which emboldened such anchors who are continuously spreading fake news.

Fake news has become a global phenomenon during the last two years after President Trump’s shocking victory in the U.S. But there is one critical difference between Pakistan and the rest of the world: Mainstream media organisations world over are trying to counter fake news through an effective mechanism.

US media organisations like The New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN have not only trained their journalists to be on guard against fake news but also devised mechanisms to make sure fake news is filtered out from their news stream.

Social media giants Facebook, Twitter and Google are developing algorithms to detect and discourage fake news. Fact-checking websites and Truth-o-meters have been developed to verify claims and differentiate between truth and falsehood. The US universities and media training organisations are investing in research projects to deal with the menace of fake news.

Experts believe Pakistani news organisations also need to follow the example of the developed world’s media. They suggest Pakistani media should train journalists to verify facts from multiple sources before reporting stories. They also recommend that universities and colleges should include fake news in the curriculum.

Credibility is critical for media and fake news is the greatest threat to credibility in this era. News organisations need to realise this as soon as possible.