September 25, 2009

Shahid Masood sees subtlety not as a virtue but as a weakness of will. He has made little attempt to hide his opposition to Asif Zardari and preference for Nawaz Sharif on his talk show, Meray Mutabiq. This despite his previous involvement with the PPP. While such overt displays of bias are regrettable, talk-show hosts in Pakistan are expected, even encouraged by their viewers, to be identified with certain agendas and political preferences.

In a column on his recent visit to Washington DC, Masood crossed the line from advocacy to unprofessionalism. Masood sees a change brewing in the US government’s attitude towards the Zardari government and he is eager to document this supposed policy shift. In doing so, however, he quotes “one official on background”, “many officials”, “an agitated official” and “another official”, all of whom were “top Americans.” In addition, Masood met with “several informed US and Pakistani officials” and “a Pakistani who knows a lot about developments in Pakistan and the US scene.”

See the problem here? Masood managed to craft an entire story without getting a single person to speak on the record. And while this may be one of the most extreme examples I have of the use of anonymous sources, it is an affliction that ails most Pakistani journalism.

The use of anonymous sources, especially when they conform to the journalist’s biases, should raise suspicion. We have no idea what prejudices these particular officials may have, or even if they have any influence on Pakistan policy. For all we know they may just be the musings of a low-level functionary. As such, this casual granting of anonymity does less to inform the public than help various actors advance their agendas without the responsibility that comes from having your name attached to a statement.

If using anonymous sources to put your own point of view across while keeping up the charade of impartiality is pernicious, there is another kind of anonymity that betrays nothing but laziness. The “Pakistani who knows a lot about developments in Pakistan and the US scene” is quoted for no other reason than to state how Zardari could find himself out of power, namely resignation, an army coup, impeachment or the elimination of the president either by natural or “man-made” causes. Were I to ask a 10-year-old child to list the various ways any political leader might be removed from power, I would expect him to make the same obvious list. This serves only to pad an already sketchy story with another pointless quote.

The protection afforded by anonymity should be given sparingly. It is appropriate when whistle blowers are giving vital information – government corruption, for example – that would cause them to lose their jobs, or even their lives. This shield should certainly not be proffered to allow others to advance their agendas – no matter how much you might agree with them.

Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.