reporter holding microphone for interview. Photo: iStock

Anyone can join the media profession in Pakistan. Job advertisements for media correspondents in rural areas emphasize that candidates should be fluent in local languages as well as English, but there are no special qualification requirements. That is why physicians, pharmacists, engineers and even some politicians work in the profession on a part-time basis.

This practice is extremely detrimental to the profession. Just imagine if a journalist claimed he could perform surgery and prescribe medication to ill people without any need for special training. But media organizations hire people who have degrees in other disciplines but no real knowledge of journalism. They do not seem to understand how a trivial statement or a false news story can cause chaos and promote intolerance. A recent case of self-immolation in Punjab’s Sialkot is one example of irresponsible media reporting.

On March 29, Bilal, a worker at a restaurant in the city set himself on fire. Local media representatives (from 92 news, Royal TV and a few others) immediately broke the news that the restaurant owner had set one of his workers on fire after beating him savagely. This report spread rapidly. No one took a second to investigate.

Social media also spread the “news” and incited many people. This is a common occurrence in Pakistan – people get stirred up by emotionally sensitive stories broadcast by media, resulting in large and immediate protests. While broadcasting such stories, media professionals rarely consider that every word they utter carries weight and that one irresponsible statement can cause deaths.

Initial news reports stated that the incident took place at a well-known restaurant called Allah Maalik when Bilal tried to pilfer sweet rice for his son. He was caught by the owner, who got so annoyed that he set Bilal on fire after beating him viciously, they reported. He was immediately sent to Jinnah Hospital in Lahore and was treated for burns over 45% of his body. The restaurant’s owners were widely condemned. Chances were high that a mob would descend on the restaurant and set it and its owners on fire.

The restaurant’s owners were widely condemned. Chances were high that a mob would descend on the restaurant and set it and its owners on fire

The moment I heard this news, I instantly set out for Sialkot to dig out the real story. CCTV footage revealed that Bilal himself had started the fire. The footage clearly showed him dousing himself with gasoline he had taken from a motorbike and setting himself on fire.

The owner, Sheraz Ansari, burned his hands trying to save Bilal. Ansari can also be seen in the above-mentioned footage.

But what made Bilal take this extreme step? To find out, I returned to Lahore and talked to Bilal’s brother, Shaukat. He said he was aware that Bilal himself was responsible for his condition and wanted to know why he did it. However, Bilal was still not able to talk about what led to the incident. His hospital expenses were being paid by the restaurant’s owners.

On the following Sunday, Bilal, whose condition had improved, told me that he had acted out of frustration over his poor standard of living. A public relations officer for Sialkot Police, Shahid Mahmoud, told me that Bilal had worked at the Allah Maalik restaurant for 18 years, which indicates that the owners probably would not have been so inhumane as to burn him over a pilfered plate of rice. He also condemned the irresponsible reporting of the incident by the local Tv channels, saying that nothing in the footage corresponded with their news broadcasts. He added that since Bilal’s family was satisfied after watching the video that it was Bilal who was at fault, the investigation was dropped.

A First Information Report was filed against Bilal under Section 325 of Pakistan Penal Code Act for the alleged act of self-immolation. One of the owners, Nawaz Ansari, said in an interview that workers in the field of hospitality are routinely reprimanded in order to maintain good quality service, but the irresponsible reporting by media endangered not only the reputation of their restaurant but also the lives of their family members. If it were not for the fact that they had CCTV footage to prove their innocence, they could have been attacked by a mob. Had it occurred at another restaurant the owners might not have been so lucky, as most establishments do not have cameras, or have cameras that do not work properly.

Big questions remain: What is the role of media and what are its responsibilities? Should its focus be on garnering high ratings or reporting the news accurately? The battle for ratings and irresponsible reporting have promoted a culture of violence and intolerance.

Media policies need to be changed. Isn’t it logical that one should have a relevant qualification before joining the media profession? If these unqualified people are not removed from this field, they could do immeasurable damage.

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Wasif Malik

Wasif Malik is special correspondent for 24 News HD, editor and anchor for M92 News, and host of the program Bila-Takaluf with Wasif Malik.

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