The dark side of news media

Published Mar 01, 2018 08:09pm

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Dr Shahid Masood appears in court over his claims regarding Zainab Ansari’s murderer | M Arif, White Star
Dr Shahid Masood appears in court over his claims regarding Zainab Ansari’s murderer | M Arif, White Star

Dr Shahid Masood started his talk show on January 24, 2018, on the NewsOne television channel in his usual cryptic style. He called Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi an intelligent man who had taken a wise decision by appointing a certain jurist as prosecutor general of the National Accountability Bureau. “Otherwise, [Abbasi] would have been arrested and handcuffed upon his return from Davos [Switzerland, where he was attending a conference],” Masood said. “Aik aur lohay ka chana (another bitter pill swallowed),” he said, without explaining why the prime minister would have been arrested and who was making him swallow a bitter pill. “This whole political situation in the country should be seen this way … ”

He left his sentence incomplete. Before he discussed politics, he said, he wanted to make a request to Chief Justice of Pakistan Justice Mian Saqib Nisar. He said he did not know if the judges watched his show but requested his audience to convey his message to the Supreme Court or, for that matter, any other court in the country. He also asked the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), the Military Intelligence (MI) and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to investigate what he was going to say and take action.

He then drew a deep breath, tapped his right hand on his desk and started speaking slowly and deliberatively: “… the Punjab government has lied about the murderer of Zainab [the little girl who was raped and killed in Kasur city in January this year]. Utter lies, a pack of lies. And I am saying this with utmost responsibility.”

Masood next mentioned his recent visit abroad. “When I went abroad a few days ago,” he paused, “in fact, I came back only yesterday morning.” He pondered for a microsecond and resumed, “I returned on the morning before yesterday.”

Details of his foreign visits over the last one and a half years followed. He said he had been to Lebanon, to Syria, to the Kurdish towns of Kirkuk and Erbil in Iraq as well as to Tunisia, Libya and Yemen to study the conflicts there first-hand. “I could not share my location or my photos because … there is so much chaos there that you cannot trust anyone,” he said. “If the rulers came to know that I was at those places, they would have had me killed through someone there,” he said, laughing.

He also mentioned that he was a trained doctor in medicine and had pursued his postgraduate studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in the United States, where internationally renowned scholar Vali Nasr was his thesis supervisor. After this long diversion, apparently to establish his credentials as an intrepid journalist and a distinguished scholar, he finally went back to talking about the Kasur incident and said he heard it being discussed everywhere while he was abroad.

“[Zainab’s murderer] Imran is neither a mason nor is he mentally sick,” Masood eventually said and raised his voice, gesturing with his hand as if he was pointing to something. “The thing that I am now going to say, I am saying it addressing Mian Saqib Nisar directly,” he said and looked straight into the camera. “[Imran] is an extremely active member of an international mafia or gang that has the backing of Pakistan’s high-profile and powerful personalities,” he said.

He looked at his co-host, took a long pause and resumed: “And this man has at least 37 bank accounts. Most of them are foreign currency accounts. This man, who is being presented as mad and mentally sick, has 37 accounts,” he repeated for emphasis. “The accounts he operates have transactions in euros, dollars and pounds from abroad … this is a game involving hundreds of millions [of rupees]. He has the support of important political and non-political personalities. This man is a member of a racket involved in [trading] violent child pornography.” Later, Masood would add that a federal minister was among Imran’s backers.

Social media went crazy over his ‘revelations’. Screenshots of a sheet of paper carrying details of Imran’s national identity card, his cell phone numbers and information about his alleged accounts soon started doing the rounds on various news sharing platforms.

Chief Justice Nisar also took note, as desired by Masood. He asked the talk show host to appear before the Supreme Court immediately and give evidence, if there was any, of his allegations. When Masood came to court, the only ‘proof’ he gave to the chief justice was a piece of paper on which he reportedly wrote the name of the federal minister allegedly supporting Imran. After his court appearance, he told news reporters that he had evidence to prove all his claims.

Justice Nisar seemed to have taken Masood’s allegations seriously. He set up a high-level committee to investigate and told Masood to give its members proof of what he had said on his show. The committee would summon him multiple times over the next two days but each time he would have a different excuse to avoid appearing before it.

His entire story then collapsed.

The investigators appointed by Justice Nisar found no bank accounts that Imran operated. The State Bank of Pakistan endorsed their findings in a public statement issued on January 26, declaring that Imran had no “local or foreign bank account”. But Masood and some other talk show hosts still continued to repeat the allegations in the face of evidence to the contrary. Embarrassed, the court sought advice from some of the most seasoned and well-known journalists. Many of them suggested that Masood should be let go after he apologises; others said he should be banished from television for spreading falsehood.

In the end, he neither apologised nor was he taken off air.

Masood has faced much worse in the past. In his BOL News show on January 24, 2017, he alleged that two ministers – one who then handled the finance department and the other who at the time looked after the defence department – were summoned to the army headquarters in Rawalpindi, and given a shut-up call for implicating the military leadership in political and judicial developments around the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s trial over his allegedly illegal offshore properties revealed by the Panama Papers. Ishaq Dar, one of the two ministers, moved the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra), which banned Masood’s show for 30 days and imposed a fine of one million rupees on the television channel for airing baseless allegations “with the malafide and ulterior motives of attacking the integrity of the federal minister”.

His show was also suspended in 2016 for 45 days after he accused the then Sindh High Court chief justice, Sajjad Ali Shah, of taking bribes. He alleged that the judge’s failure to honour a commitment made to his alleged benefactors had led to the kidnapping of his son.

That these stories – and many others that Masood has told over the years in his shows – have been proven false, fabricated and without any basis whatsoever has done little to dent his reputation as a much watched and followed talk show host. He has 507,000 followers on Twitter, his show on NewsOne has a Facebook following of 172,493 and one of his two unofficial Facebook pages is followed by 164,678 people. If nothing else, these followers ensure that any news he peddles stays alive in some form or shape in some corner of the media.

And Masood is not the only practitioner of this dark art. There are others who have a much bigger fan following and thereby a much larger impact on public opinion. One of them, Dr Aamir Liaquat Husain, has been banned multiple times from appearing on television for spreading false news.


This is an excerpt from the Herald's March 2018 cover story. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.