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Pakistani Journalists Divided Over Whether Government Perks Cloud Their Autonomy


When does a professional perk become corruption? Journalists in Pakistan are wrestling with this. Some have a fine record of exposing the wrongdoing of others at great personal risk. But this time, they're being asked to shine a light on themselves. NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: The journalists who cover Karachi every day are taking a breather. They've withdrawn from the city's hurly-burly to take afternoon tea in their press club. The Karachi Press Club is famous in South Asia. It has a history of challenging power and fighting for an independent media. Yet the relationship between its 1,300 members and government is not as clear-cut as it sounds.

A H KHANZADA: All the members of Karachi Press Club have one plot for their house.

REEVES: That's press club secretary A H Khanzada. He's talking about plots of residential land parceled out at greatly discounted prices by government. Journalists in Pakistan have been benefiting from this controversial perk for decades. Khanzada sees nothing wrong with it.

KHANZADA: No, I am very clear in this. This is not a bribe. This is a facilitation to the journalist.

REEVES: Real estate values in Pakistan's biggest cities have soared in recent years. A cut-price plot of land can turn into quite a jackpot.

MATIULLAH JAN: Journalists have paid for something like $2,000 or $3,000 for their plot - for the piece of land, and they sold it for about $80,000 to $150,000.

REEVES: TV journalist Matiullah Jan believes this practice is damaging his profession.

JAN: Because now people are saying oh, I know this journalist. He is talking about corruption, but he himself has taken money and plots from the government. So we are left with no credibility with such an exercise.

REEVES: Jan believes his colleagues in Pakistan's media should refuse to accept cheap land from the government.


JAN: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: A few years back, he chaired a series of TV shows about media ethics.


JAN: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: He challenged journalists who've accepted plots to justify themselves.

JAN: Ultimately, who has to pay for it? It is the people who have to pay for it. This land belongs to the government, the government of the people.

REEVES: Jan's campaign has yet to bear fruit. Just a month ago, the provincial government in northwest Pakistan announced that some 900 media workers in the city of Peshawar will be offered cheap plots in a giant model town being built there. Pakistan's media aren't the only beneficiaries of this perk. Others include the army and police, civil servants and judges. Though many Pakistani journalists who've accepted cut-price plots tend to justify this by pointing to their thin pay packets and lack of pensions. TV anchors get lavishly paid, but most journalists would struggle to afford a home were it not for their discounted land. This perk isn't corrupting they say because the plots are allocated to press clubs for distribution and not given directly to individuals. Mohammed Ziauddin lives in an enclave called Media Town in Pakistan's capital Islamabad. It's a patchwork of plots, each about the size of a tennis court. Ziauddin is one of the great sages of Pakistani journalism who, for years, refused discounted government land.

MOHAMMED ZIAUDDIN: Once you're obliged you are obliged.

REEVES: Ziauddin was a hugely respected newspaper editor. He retired recently and moved into Media Town.

ZIAUDDIN: I had passed my 60 years of age. So, I mean, this was the first plot I received.

REEVES: Ziauddin says government started handing out cheap land to journalists in the '70s. It was started by the then Prime Minister Zulfikhar Ali Bhutto who wanted to reward the media for their support. Bhutto and the political leaders who followed found their generosity failed to secure favorable press coverage.

ZIAUDDIN: This kind of approach towards media people has not worked. I mean, it didn't work as a bribe.

REEVES: Matiullah Jan agrees the perk of cheap land hasn't made Pakistan's media less critical of governments.

JAN: You cannot just pick up a story and say that this story was written because this journalist made got plot along with others. It's not like that. But this is corrupting the industry as a whole and destroying and damaging their credibility in the eyes of the public.

REEVES: If Pakistan's journalists and a few other privileged professions get cut-price land, why, asks Jan, can't everyone else?

JAN: Don't they get old? Don't they work hard in their professions? Are they not human beings?

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
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