TV as a blood sport

A UK judge rules in the Geo v. ARY libel case

TV as a blood sport
It has taken a British judge to teach our TV channels that there’s a high price to pay for libel. Sadly, his judgment applies only to his jurisdiction, and TV anchors remain free to ruin reputations without any evidence in Pakistan.

Reading Sir David Eady’s judgment on the Geo versus ARY libel case in the High Court, one is stuck with its lucidity and logic. There is very little legal jargon, and the document is a model of clarity and brevity.

Each of the 24 offending programmes aired by ARY attacking the Geo founder, Mir Shakilur Rahman, is dissected. Accusations of blasphemy and treason are separated, and a pattern of libellous intent is carefully established.

The defence that the Geo boss already had a bad reputation in Pakistan due to his channel’s campaign against the military is rejected. Finally, the complainant is awarded 185,000 pounds in damages, and ARY is directed to pay nearly three million pounds in costs. And to add insult to injury, the channel was later ordered to broadcast an apology.

As a result, ARY declared voluntary bankruptcy, and closed its London offices. Given that other Pakistani channels also rebroadcast their chat shows in the UK, perhaps anchors and producers will be more careful about making baseless accusations.

Or perhaps not: they may simply continue indulging in the usual lies at home, and censor programmes before showing them in Britain. After all, it is the home audience they are competing for, and in Pakistan, they can libel anybody without fear of retribution. Pemra, the electronic media regulator, as well as our courts provide individuals with no protection when it comes to slander.

Unlike the High Court in London, our higher judiciary is more interested in maintaining its own dignity than in safeguarding the reputation of citizens. While it issues contempt notices for real or perceived disrespect at the drop of a hat, libel suits are seldom heard. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has been successfully sued, or forced to apologise, by our courts.
Each of the 24 offending programmes aired by ARY attacking the Geo founder, Mir Shakilur Rahman, is dissected in the judgement. Accusations of blasphemy and treason are separated, and a pattern of libellous intent is carefully established

Although Mubashir Lucman, the ARY anchor at the heart of the libel suit, was not present in court, the judge noted that his programme Khara Such had subjected the claimant to “persistent abuse and ridicule over a year-long period.” And the fact that there was an empty chair next to the presenter indicated that the abuse was being directed towards Geo’s owner.

As we have learned by watching unbridled televised discussions, anchors provide absolutely no check on what is said on their programmes. On the contrary, they encourage guests to make ever more outrageous charges against opponents. The whole thing has become a blood sport in which the audience is thrown chunks of red meat to keep them coming back for more.

In this race to the gutter, restraint is penalised by lower ratings. The wilder the accusations, the more eagerly the audience laps them up. For bringing in increased advertisement revenues, anchors are paid millions. So why wouldn’t they go way over the top, especially when there are no sanctions for libel in Pakistan?

Perhaps both Pemra and our judiciary should examine the real cost of this brutalising of the public discourse. Apart from the loss of reputation an individual suffers, our whole political system is put at risk by the persistent, often unfounded, attacks aimed at elected politicians and other public figures.

Given the immunity enjoyed by TV channels in Pakistan, it should not surprise us when offended parties appeal to British courts or to Ofcom, the UK media watchdog. Thus, ARY’s programme Sawal Yeh Hay was found to be in breach of broadcasting regulations by Ofcom in its ruling made a year ago.

In this programme, the anchor and his three guests accused Malala of being a “blasphemer”, an “enemy of Islam”, a “Jewish and Western agent” and a “traitor”. Her father was charged by the panellists of betraying Pakistan.

In its detailed ruling, Ofcom rejected the defence that the programme was presented in the form of debate, not a personal attack on the grounds that the presenter had offered “no challenge or balance” to the views expressed in the broadcast. It went on to say that the freedom of expression was not absolute, and the programme had been a “sustained, one-sided attack on a young woman who had been the victim of a traumatic and life-threatening terrorist attack.”

The ruling could have also noted that an accusation of blasphemy, no matter how unfounded, was practically a death sentence in Pakistan. It goes without saying that Malala and her father could not have found redress at the doors of Pemra or our courts.

We also need to keep in mind the role played by shadowy agencies in orchestrating vicious personal attacks. Perhaps our higher judiciary will finally play its role in protecting individuals from the circus masters in charge of TV channels.