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Exclusive on Dawn’s ‘exclusive’

M Ziauddin
There are three players in the so-called ‘Dawn Leaks’ tale. But the ensuing debate raging since the publication of the story in question has turned the tale virtually into a civil-military tussle with the latter taking it for granted, one presumes, that Dawn had willingly obliged the former by accommodating the leaked ‘plant’ on its front page.
Not that the government is not capable of planting stories. Governments do manipulate compliant media and Nawaz government is no exception. But I find it almost impossible to believe that that is what had happened in the case of Dawn’s ‘Exclusive’. The Newspaper abides by a strict code of ethics. I should know, because I had served the newspaper for almost thirty years in various editorial capacities. It has its own peculiar culture that does not let you take liberties with professional ethics.In the first place no story as important as the one the Newspaper published on October 6, 2016 (Exclusive: Act against militants or face international isolation, civilians tell military) under the by-line of Cyril Almeida would have gone straight on to the front page just because the reporter known for his integrity and credibility as a professional journalist had filed it. Without fail such stories would land on the Editor’s desk for his judgment call.It was, I am more than sure, the Editor’s decision to go with the story after he had had the reporter satisfy him that it was not a plant by an interested source and that it was based on interviews of credible sources and that he had obtained versions of all concerned.Strangely disturbing was the Military officials’ response on being asked for their version: ‘They declined to comment’. Please note, they knew beforehand at least the salient features of the still to be published story but did neither deny nor contradict the story when they had the opportunity to do so; and they did not even think it prudent to try to talk to the Publisher and the Editor of Dawn to explain to them that publishing such a story at this point in time, in their opinion, would not be in the national interest and that it would compromise national security.
It is difficult to understand why the military officials did not do what they should have done before the story was published. And it is even more difficult to understand why the institution has made a mountain out of a molehill after it was published and the government had duly issued a curt denial.The entire post- publication affair seems to have thrown the never ending saga of our civil-military distrust into bold relief on the international front, not helping in any way our security concerns. A committee was formed to identify the ‘whistle-blower’ failing which the government was allowed no option other than dismissing those who in their opinion should have stopped its publication and also those they assumed had ‘leaked’ and ‘planted’ the story. So, the three scapegoats. But still the tussle continues.The very fact that the Editor decided to publish the story suggests that he had judged the story to be in public interest and also that its publication would not compromise national security. Indeed, there was nothing in the information contained in story which most well informed Pakistanis and Pakistan watchers outside did not already know except for the news that the civilians had confronted the institution with it. That is what perhaps the establishment did not like to see in cold print. But perhaps the publication of the story did spotlight a chronic fault-line in our on-going war against terrorism and in the process created the right kind of framework for future cooperation between the civil administration and the military institution in tackling the threats that the country is facing.It is but natural for those who know very little about Dawn’s culture and the professionalism of its senior editorial staff to suspect some kind of conspiracy behind the whole affair. But I for one would find it very difficult to believe Dawn would allow itself to be used by the ruling party or for that matter by any other branch of the government.
Since the Dawn story was based on sources that had preferred to remain anonymous, it was again the Editor’s decision whether or not to go with the story. And I am sure the Editor took the final decision after having weighed the news value of the report, having satisfied himself that it was in public interest, having had the reporter double and triple check the information and having had the reporter tested it against inaccuracies and slants.Even the most credible newspapers in the world carry on almost daily basis contradictions and clarifications of stories they had published on the previous day, week, month and even years before. Dawn is no exception. And Dawn also has what is called the Readers’ Editor in the person of Mr Mohammad Ali Siddiqui, one of country’s most senior journalists, an upright professional. I have followed Editor Zafar Abbas’ career from very close quarters since early 1980s. I would vouch for his professional integrity. Trained at the BBC, he is a hardnosed newsman but not one of those who would not let truth come in the way of a good sensational story.Protection of sources is well recognised in international law as a key principle underpinning press freedom. Of course, before granting anonymity, the reporter/Editor must consider the motivations of the source and be wary of possible manipulation. The reporter should always guard against being used by sources that have their own personal, class or some narrow government or state agenda. Such stories are called ‘plants’ and journalists should avoid such tainted information coming from ‘interested’ sources at all costs. While using leaked classified documents whose origin appears dubious the reporter should consult the legal advisor of the media organisation with the permission of the Editor. I believe, Dawn had walked this entire lane before going ahead with the publication of the ‘Exclusive’.

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