The Pakistani internet can damage lives as many people have experienced since the terrifying rise of social media in the country. Regrettably, a member of the SAMAA TV team also experienced this, on Sunday May 17, because of a visually misleading article published by Parhlo.com.
The website published a post with the headline: Pakistani wife throws acid on husband after he threatened her with second marriage. It was by Jawad Minhas, who I am told is a freelancer, and it was what we call a “curated” item from reporting done elsewhere. That elsewhere was SAMAA TV’s evening show, 7 se 8. The reporter was the programme’s producer Uneeza Fatima.
Unfortunately, the Parhlo staff posting the item on Sunday used a screenshot they photoshopped from the February 17 television interview with the victim husband. The result? It looked like Uneeza Fatima was the wife who threw the acid. That is because the image with the post was not of journalist Uneeza Fatima interviewing the victim, but a collage of him and her, placed side by side.
The acid attack post was sensational enough—an A Class man-bites-dog piece of ‘news’. It was bound do to well as salacious crime does with Pakistani audiences. In fact, this story did so well on social media that Uneeza Fatima started getting calls from outraged relatives and people who knew her. The post had gone viral.
Parhlo has since removed the misleading image and replaced it with another one. (This time not much better, a violent two-window image of the victim and a random man being slapped, which is unrelated to the acid attack and problematic on many fronts). The head of its editorial desk, Sana Jamil, told SAMAA Digital that they would run a clarification and apology and delete the post from their social media. But when they did do it, it was just as a P.S. under another headline and not as a separate item. SAMAA Digital finds this unacceptable and conveyed this much. Some contrition and remorse is in order here. I was told that this was all the company was willing to do.
For our part, a complaint has been registered with the FIA Cybercrime cell. “I have given directions ahead and inshaAllah, as soon as possible,” said FIA Deputy Director Abdul Ghaffar. He said that Facebook would delete it after going through its due process. SAMAA Digital is also reaching out to Facebook.
If one were inclined to pursue legal action, perhaps that section of PECA would nicely apply here for offences against the dignity of a natural person in which information you know is false is transmitted and harms their reputation. As of the latest available version of the law, it can be punishable with up to three years in prison or a fine of up to one million rupees or both. I say if one were inclined for a reason. Having seen the damage done by PECA to journalists such as Shahzeb Jillani, I would not then fall back on a law I have publicly criticised. That would be hypocrisy in no small measure.
Instead, we are working with whatever means available to counter the false impression in cyberspace. This incident raises larger questions for Parhlo. I am not terribly confident there will be much change at the website given what I have heard over the years, but perhaps this can be an illuminating and sobering example for bloggers, writers and journalists who care and websites, serious and non-serious, that do not want to make such a mistake. Indeed, one of the first and best principles of journalism is to do no harm.
Of course, it is my understanding that Parhlo does not claim to even be a “news” website. It is an online tabloid of sorts. To give you a taste, consider this headline: “Queen Elizabeth reveals the royal couple has moved to Pakistan!” What I find egregious, however, is that its posts (I am not calling them stories) are filed under the category “News” as you can see in this image given above.
There are plenty of ways of creatively categorizing sexy posts without being completely misleading (and I say this knowing full well many people will disagree with me, for what is the point of clickbait after all). Allow me to argue, however, that for the most part, as with the Queen Elizabeth-type items, people can somewhat tell it is unbelievable. The problem with the Uneeza Fatima item is that there was no way to tell she was not the wife, so misleading was the image. The question is if Parhlo condones clickbait and misinformation even if it is identifiably proven to damage someone’s personal reputation and causes psychological distress and scars them. Even if that person reaches out and registers a formal complaint. The Queen has hardly been affected by Parhlo’s post. Uneeza Fatima’s life has, however, been turned upside down. (This made me particularly sad because women and men from some families face so much criticism for working in the media and doing journalism.)
The lessons are clear: I am told Parhlo’s freelancers freely upload the posts themselves without editorial oversight or any vetting. The language of the post itself proves this. In fact, had Jawad Minhas wanted to really use the Uneeza Fatima interview, he would have sponged off some details or quotes from it. Parhlo might want to invest in some properly trained subeditors. I offer my services free of charge. Any of SAMAA Digital’s subeditors and senior subeditors, or our news editors, can also come in to do a talk about the policies we follow and the pitfalls we try to avoid. We can put Parhlo in touch with the people who trained us as well.
Parhlo should have linked back to the YouTube video or Facebook post of the Uneeza Fatima interview. Sourcing or hyperlinking is often lazily avoided by content creators because they won’t want to give anyone else traffic or they don’t think about it. But if they link back they can protect themselves by laying the responsibility at the door of the original producer of content. It is advisable to actually name the TV channel and not just say, as this piece did, “A private news channel reported the incident.”
Jawad Minhas regrettably chose to insert a tweet from a person who deliberately misled on Uneeza Fatima’s identity. He wrote, although with a strange use of the preposition ‘besides’: “Besides, in the tweet mentioned below the lady is not the wife of the husband but the reporter of a News channel.” As any subeditor with any training will tell you these days, you do not give further oxygen to social media posts or links to content that is problematic. You don’t repost, hyperlink back or embed it to enhance its circulation. Yes, you can refer to it and paraphrase or text-quote it, but your language has to very clearly hammer the point home that it is wrong. This principle applies especially, for example, when subeditors edit stories on terrorist pronouncements.
The last lesson is about the visuals. As I was told, Parhlo uses WordPress whose irritating requirement (unless you get more coding done) is that every post requires an image or photo. In this case, a jpeg had to be uploaded. What I imagine happened here is that the person doing the posting wanted a one-shot frame with Uneeza Fatima and the victim husband in it together, except the interview was shot in such a way that they never were sitting together. The camera switched between the two. They were never in one frame. The misleading image was produced by placing Uneeza Fatima and the victim together.
This is where the line blurs for me because I cannot tell if it was done with malicious intent or was a callous disregard for what this post would look like. I am willing to buy the argument that the person making this photoshopped image did not know what effect it would have. But by now everyone in the business of digital content production has acquired a sense of the power of the doctored image. The smart ethical editors, subeditors, writers, reporters, graphics artists understand the cognitive uptake on these visuals, how they will be perceived and the impression they give. We know that you never need to put the image of the reporter in the story. It is always the image of the subject (and that too guidelines apply). In this case it was the bandaged, blurred figure of the acid attack victim. So whoever thought it was a good idea to put Uneeza Fatima in there was desperate to convey something. What was also nauseating was the moral high ground that the writer of the post took on acid attacks.
I have advised Uneeza Fatima to always carry the soft blue SAMAA mic when she goes to interview people from now on. This incident is a lesson for us as well. I have learnt a lot from it. News organisations make mistakes every day, just as people in any profession do. Our mistakes, I have learnt, however, carry a different social weight. We are one of the most publicly criticised professions in Pakistan and this means we have to hold ourselves to high standards. What is unforgivable is to not learn from such mistakes, publicly and appropriately apologise and reassess editorial policy to improve. Uneeza Fatima deserves a proper apology that is made publicly.
Parhlo calls itself “the leading open platform that represents the voice of youth with viral stories.” It is leading, and extremely popular. That is correct. This is especially why it should take its position seriously. I believe it can cover “viral” stories just the same. Parhlo also says it believes in “liberating Pakistani youth”. My only question is: is this the kind of liberation young people in Pakistan want?
Mahim Maher is the Editor of SAMAA Digital.