Why was Bilalwal Bhutto Zardari, a politician, sharing his limited views on “fake news” and journalism when he knows nothing about it?

Published: January 30, 2018
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His answers indicate that Bilawal was just doing his job which he has been groomed to do, being a politician. PHOTO: SCREENSHOT

By now, the news of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s short, yet significant trip to Davos has reached the ears of every Pakistani. However, not many are aware of the discussions or sessions that he has both co-hosted and participated in as a panellist.

The only people who applauded his views which he shared at the World Economic Forum (WEF) were his party loyalists, who seem to revere everything that revolves around the young Bhutto, whether it is his flawed Urdu or raw opinions on his opponents, which are marvelously sugarcoated by his flamboyance and soft English accent. This charisma is quite apparent if the surroundings are not equally as majestic. However, on an international platform, such charm is hardly noticeable because the atmosphere is as sophisticated as the individual himself. Uunfortunately, Bilawal’s courteous attitude did not make much of an impact on the people who were hosting the sessions at the Forum.

In one of the dialogues, which focused on the origins and repercussions of “fake news”, there was a point when BBC senior anchor Zainab Badawi, who was conducting the session, appeared to stifle her frustration towards the young man and would often hastily end his sentences for him. I would not be surprised if she considered his opinions as being made out of juvenility; she chuckled at some occasions, simultaneously making brief interruptions when she felt that her Pakistani guest was supporting certain aspects of journalism that should not be supported.

Well, we cannot entirely blame Bilawal for not showing enough maturity, as he was one of the youngest panellists seated among some of the world’s top news and information outlets’ representatives. Comparatively speaking, the managing editor of the New York Times, Joseph Kahn was perhaps the only panellist that provided strong, comprehensive answers to Badawi’s sharp queries in the most composed manner, as opposed to a rather nervous Bilawal, who seemed to be intimidated by the sweeping responses of his fellow panellists.

The topic of “fake news” is swollen with content, with the proliferation of misinformation and propaganda in different parts of the globe having resulted in cyber warfares between developed nations, and in Pakistan’s case, detention and penalisation of people alleged of committing blasphemy based on hearsay evidence. Given the present condition of the world, in terms of rising and declining economies, foreign invasions and convoluted global politics, there is a lot to discuss and ponder upon.

For a Pakistani, requesting a presence for a brief discussion on the topic is like being invited to an open feast, because Pakistan itself has its own fair-share of notoriously interesting fables. The citizens of the Islamic Republic have witnessed their own country become a focal point of stories, sometimes authored by its arch-rivals and backed by unverified sources, but it is what their own country manufactures that occasionally catches the attention of the international community.

From promoting hate speech and lynching innocent individuals on allegations of blasphemy, to the correspondence between rival journalists with political affiliations in the forms of Op-eds and editorials, Pakistan, apparently, is one of the breeding grounds of fake news. The young Bhutto, without realising, was loaded with a wide variety of answers, but what he put forth were deeply altered responses that were not meant to fit the time frame of course, but rather, to avoid any backlash at home. He tentatively touched on the Pakistani state’s crackdown on dissenting voices. When asked whether fake news was prominent in Pakistan, the young Bhutto replied,

“There is no concrete answer behind it.”

What could be attained from this single, straight-forward answer is that, unlike developed nations, large factions of journalism have contributed to the fake news phenomenon in this developing country.

When it comes to Pakistan, it has not only been individuals who scribe down national events which often encapsulate their own expertise. Those who are part of the state mechanism, such as high-profile politicians, have vehemently meddled with the way information is broadcasted by local news outlets. Pakistani journalists, without a doubt, often act as courtiers of powerful political personalities, glorifying their superiors and denouncing their detractors. Moreover, they are produced with such compassion that it is difficult to separate fact from fabrication, which often goes against the popular narrative shared by the public, a situation which Kahn explained as “hyper-partisanship producing fake news, than fake news producing hyper-partisanship”.

Given his status as a renowned politician, one could say that Bilawal was invited for the wrong discussion. His words reflected traits of a leader, as compared to his fellow panellists, who were coming up with eloquent responses as expected from professional journalists. And if one thinks like a leader and a political representative, then there is a hidden tendency of curbing certain freedoms that are deemed necessary in order to preserve their dignity and popularity. Bilawal displayed similar symptoms when he amplified the views of Russia Today’s deputy editor-in-chief, who was constantly denying the allegations that Russia promotes state propaganda by weaponising information. This was a significant moment for Bilawal to bring up his own state’s increasing surveillance on online bloggers and their abduction thereof, an opportunity he did not take advantage of.

It showed a side of Bilawal that he is not willing to accept absolute independence of the press, because his party, Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), also controls a small portion of the mass media factory, along with other mainstream political parties, which he was, nevertheless, sincere enough to point out. He mentioned Pakistani news agencies’ long association with large businesses and their growing commercialisation, but this type of information was added as a substitute to cover up major problems that are plaguing Pakistani journalism, part of which are due to hyper-partisanship. But it was not only the interests of his party and the Pakistani state that Bilawal seemed to be protecting – his tumultuous past appears to prevent him from sharing opinions that might land him into trouble, like his predecessors.

When the panel host asked for conclusive remarks, Bilawal emphasised on educating the masses to distinguish fake news from authentic information. The suggestion appeared to be valid, but after being a part of almost an hour-long debate, one expects a concise response to end a highly important conversation, yet Bilawal’s words seemed like a haphazard attempt to finish off a discussion he appeared to be unfamiliar with.

Following the session, his interview with the Indian news agency, India Today, was far more impressive than his flawed conversation at WEF. It might be because the interview was centred on Bilawal’s opinions as a politician and heir of a powerful political dynasty, and did not demand his expertise on any other topic except politics. The interview provided him with the opportunity to demonstrate his ability as a future policymaker. He provided succinct answers to his Indian host’s crafty questions, tangling him up in his own queries. If we compare the interview with the session, the Indian journalist was trying to overpower him, but Bilawal provided spectacular answers as a form of retaliation.

In comparison, at the WEF session, his views were rather sluggish, lacking content and research, which made him seem unprepared and uninterested. It may be because the young Bhutto is quite aware of the type of journalism that Indians promote across their country – their hyperbolic coverage of local affairs and anti-Pakistan rants are pretty famous around the world – so the PPP chairman did not have to develop an extra skill to answer Indian reporters.

However, at WEF, his opinions on “fake news” also based on his instincts did not do wonders, as the session demanded that extra skill, which is either absent in Bilawal or he is not willing to develop. The young Bhutto should look beyond the conformities of politics; one does not have to be a journalist to understand journalism, its qualities and deformities. Bilawal has the gift of saying the bitterest of things in the most charming way; he could have criticised the strong regulations on journalists and bloggers without incurring any sort of wrath from the state itself. By avoiding it, it indicates that Bilawal was just doing his job which he has been groomed to do, being a politician.

Fatima Ansari

Fatima Ansari

A law student and blogger based in Karachi, Pakistan. A Middle East and South Asia observer, who writes on international and domestic politics and culture. She tweets @FatimaAnsari_ (twitter.com/FatimaAnsari_)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Keyboard Soldier

    Has the author heard of a thing called “birth lottery.” He can do this because he was “born” into it. Doesn’t matter what nonsense he spews out; there would be millions still looking up to him as a God.Recommend

  • Khalid Masoud Rehman Rao

    Blogger makes a good journalistic point. For me as a commoner I find him not very intelligent on many topics. I dont see any vision in his eyes. People are fooled because he is the son of BB. The reality is that Bilawal Zardari not Bhutto at all. Fatima Bhutto is there to be called Bhutto and she is a bit Charismatic. People of his party are airing his future but to me he is not capable at all. Under Crook leadership he has to show his will power and confidence, but he is still under his dad and aunt.Recommend

  • Anis Alam Saeed

    Politicians are not experts , they are opinion maker and opinion taker ,they are invited to talks not for their experts opinion but only to know their understanding of issue in the discussion and to feed them ongoing experts views rather than to speak and behave as an experts. His response to the Indian anchor , who is well known for putting answer in his questions and of his harsh attitude , he dealt boldly, and correctly , this speak of leadership treats . Every sane persons in Pakistan must have been happy to see him representing the country interest so eloquently , which is not characteristic of our present leaderships of the country. This country need not only young Bilawal but as many as young leaders like him , who are of this world , eloquent , talented and ready to defend the country , i think we should appreciate him for the contribution he has made so far and do not cut him down if he has failed to act in a way we want him to act .Recommend

  • anon

    The host began the discussion by asking him the very first question, and he articulated his response extremely well. In fact, there were a few instances where the other panelists, including NY times editor, agreed with Mr. Bhutto. Also, it is not just PPP supporters who liked what Bilawal said at the forum. I have friends who are PTI/PMLN supporters, and they seemed to have liked it just as much. Lastly, the host only got upset with Bilawal when he rightly came to point out the hypocrisy in calling out Russia’s state sponsored media when the BBC itself is a part of state media, albeit regulated by an ‘independent body’.Recommend

  • Khan

    why do you blame him for saying the right thing? For once, I agreed with what Bilawal was saying. He made some really good points. Unfortunately he comes from a corrupt family and corrupt party who did absolutely nothing for their people- the villagers of Sindh. But I agree with him on fake news and sub standard journalism. Both the west and the east are presently victims of this irresponsible journalism.Recommend

  • MJ

    I am not a PPP supporter but I believe Bilawal handled the questions very well and whatever he said was measured and direct. I don’t support him becoming a default leader of PPP because of his birth rights but in this segment there was not much wrong to be found with him.Recommend

  • abhi

    I found him quite good. At least he sounded better than Rahul Gandhi despite being younger.Recommend

  • sterry

    Exactly. I thought Bilawal did very well on the BBC interview and if Zainab Badawi doesn’t get the response she wants from her questioning, that is her fault. She is hardly the most articulate of journalists on state supported BBC. I actually thought it was refreshing to hear a young articulate and intelligent Pakistani man giving his thoughts on a topical issue. Especially given the fact that fake news is just as prevalent in Pakistan as it is in the West and the media doesn’t like to have their faults exposed. Just look at Dr. Shahid Masood who made up stories about a killer having 37 accounts, being a part of some extensive ring and working with a minister! How can anyone take what Dr. Shahid Masood says as a journalist seriously now? I think you have to give Bilawal Zardari Bhutto ( I don’t understand his weird name) credit for a job well done considering we have had barely literate people like Musharraf speak on behalf of Pakistan. The whole nation cringed whenever he spoke in his thick unintelligible accent and said that Pakistani women want to be raped for overseas visas and money. Finally you get a well spoken man with something to say who is respected internationally but true to form, Pakistanis want to tear him down? By the way, I am no fan of PPP and I have never supported them in elections. You just need to be objective.Recommend

  • SHAH S

    Mr. Bhutto who??? His father’s name is Zardari, not Bhutto; The family tree and last name honorship is right of son and his children .. carrying last name of family… Fatima is a Bhutto, daughter of Mir Murtaza Bhutto..Recommend

  • Sara

    I liked the point Bilawal made about the WMDs. Why isn’t the BBC and NYT etc. reporting WMDs as an excuse to attack Iraq considered fake news?Recommend

  • Syed A. Zafar

    When it comes to Bilawal’s answers to questions, I do not think he was that bad. I believe, he was ok as per his age, but the wishful thinking of his party followers to see him as as a leader of Pakistan is nothing but living in fools’ paradise. Although, these days, bad things happens quite often in this world and anybody can pop up as a sudden leader, especially when it comes to Pakistan, but still, I believe, there is no chance for this silver spoon fed pampered teenager to become the next PM of Pakistan. Not only because, it is not ZAB’s era when it was easy to fool around with the public which was quite new and enchanted to believe in his political mesmerization tactics and misleading slogans like “Roti Kapra aur Makan”, but also the people of Pakistan are little bit better aware of who is who in Pakistan this time. They prefer to follow a populist flip flopper, like IK who has nothing to present to nation than following the same old same old tested corrupt feudal thugs. Besides, neither Bilawal has his grand father’s charisma and dramatic qualities, nor he can beat IK who is the new pick of mighty of Pakistan. Also, the dependence on black money and dynastic politics are no more the major criteria behind making a leader in Pakistan. IK’s case is exceptional, because, Pakistan’s mights are on his side, but, in reality, It takes true leadership qualities including knowing the nation and having proficiency in own national language than having complexes and mastering on master’s language and agenda. It is amazing that Bilawal speaks English in softer tone with better civility and proficiency, but when it comes to his scripted written speeches in his own national language, he proves himself as silly and an alien in his own country. This is what he is trained for. I think, he should not be directed to act and deliver like his grand father (ZAB), because he is not ZAB. He should act and speak like a normal human being and should not lose his own qualities. He should prove that he can interact with his Pakistani fellow citizens and walk on Pakistani streets freely and comfortably without baby sitters and guards, so that he can convince common people that he has leadership potentials. I believe, Pakistan is not in need of good leaders any more (it was lucky to have a few, but wasted no time either killing them or discarding them), it needs “Bashaoor Awaam (well informed and sensible public) this time, who can differentiate between thugs and the leaders and know the value of their votes.Recommend

  • Parvez

    This was his first exposure at an event like Davos …… and he passed with decent marks.Recommend

  • rizwan

    you mean we should support him down and out just because he can make good sense speaking at international forums whereas his party continues to create records upon records of ugly governance year after year and term after term. Come on and have a heart !!Recommend

  • Namrah Shafiq

    It was maybe his first big appearance on an international forum . Give him a breakRecommend

  • Abid Mahmud Ansari.

    I have always disagreed with the Bhutto “tag” attached to Zardaris. Bilawal is actually Bilawal B.Zardari, so are his sisters. Now, just as his father Asif Ali Zardari became “accidental president”, so Bilawal B.Zardari became “accidental chairman” of PPP. As far as, his arranged interview with India Today, One may not be impressed by Bilawal’s “narration” of answers fed into his mouth. Every one in Pakistan knows his calibre and his political aptitude.Recommend

  • Ihsan

    I think blogger has shown her personal disliking to BBZ, she has ignored the fact that BBZ was the youngest of all and a generalist to the topic in presence of experts. His replies were direct, candid and clear. BBZ’s conclusive remarks are a true solution to the fake news. Why fake news circulate widely in Pakistan, because we accept this without pinch of salt. When massess become aware of such news, they will not give ears to such info. We should come out of our personal likings and dislikings.Recommend

  • Sarmad Ali

    Calling the young politician Juvenile, immature, sluggish, unskilled, and that he was ridiculed shows author’s hostility and impaired understanding of the session which she has seen probably in pieces only.
    I have seen Bilawals WEF session on fake news twice. Badawi tends to conduct the sessions rather informally and she pokes/interrupts/chuckles at the speakers quite often. Politicians are not expected to extend their expert opinion on sophisticated issues like this and neither are expected to command technical issues in such talks but they are invited to extend their opinions and their efforts to tackle the issues in terms of legislations/laws. Bilawal very intelligently brought to table the government funding of mainstream news channels like BBC, in response to allegations on RT, and Badawi was almost knocked off at this time as other participants also tacitly agreed to Bilawal. Author has entirely failed to conserve her politicaly nuetrality and has blogged down very shallow and hostile comprehension of rather complex situationRecommend

  • Khizr I. Tajammul

    This article is largely pointless! The criticism is hollow, baseless and subjective! There are plenty of things you can pick on re Belawal. The points you have raised are not those things!

    The man challenged BBC for spreading ‘fake news’ on Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq and developing a case for western super powers. Zainab shushed him down, obviously. What else did you expect her to do? He is the only person taking western powers on.Recommend

  • Guy

    I have to say, Bilawal gave a great interview and performance. He was the best speaker among the panellists and even made the interviewed look amateurish by comparison.Recommend

  • Striver

    He wasn’t completely out of his depth. It was he did not know the subject as well as the others but he handled it well.
    He handled it with confidence and articulate well. That’s what counts.Recommend

  • isa

    bilawal at davos was a breath of fresh air in this maze of old,quixotic political raucous running the same rut since 4 decades – fatima ansari- please dont end up being another cynic in this nation of cynics :)Recommend

  • Patwari

    Agree with you. Like the Gandhis. Or Bushes. Or even Kennedys.Recommend

  • Salman Khan

    I support Imran Khan through and through. Personally, I am of the belief that people who rose from the ground up are much better candidates than the ones born or married into it. Hence I have never thought much about Bilawal except that he might too young/naive/emotional to be a politcal leader. But I will have to admit, Bilawal did well at Davos, especially for a first-timer. Much of the criticism here is fueled on bias rather than objectivity.Recommend

  • Rex Minor

    The family tree and last name honorship is right of son and his children .. carrying last name of family..

    Not a right but the ancient practice of being identified from mens (father or husband) and not womens (mother) name. Bilawal truly represents bhutto family of his martyred mother and grandfather. Asif zardari has done right to adopt Bhutto name for his children. Bilawal has a great task ahead of him to serve the people of Pakistan to continue the legacy of Bhuttos.
    Recommend