Ofcom has upheld a complaint by former ARY Network Limited’s CEO Fayaz Ghafoor’s legal representative Gresham Legal Limited against Geo News and Geo Tez over significant allegations that were likely to materially and adversely affect viewers’ perceptions of him in an unfair way.
In February 2017, ARY Network Limited went into liquidation, which resulted in the closure of ARY Digital, ARY News and ARY QTV shutting down in the UK. The company went into liquidation just days after it lost a libel case against the owners of rival, Geo Network, Jang Group. The group’s Chief Executive and Editor in Chief, Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman was awarded £185,000 in libel damages from ARY Network.
It was during this occasion, Geo News and Geo Tez broadcast a show ‘Naya Pakistan with Talat Hussain’ on 3rd February, which referred to the High Court libel proceedings. The report included an interview with Mr Murtaza Ali Shah, Chief Correspondent and Associate Resident Editor of the Daily Jang, and UK Chief Correspondent of Geo News. The programme’s presenter, Mr Talat Hussain, asked Mr Shah about the options open to ARY now that its channels had ceased broadcasting in the UK.
Mr Shah gave the following response: “Well, ARY has the option to make a late application to Ofcom for a licence, but before they do that, Talat Sahib [the presenter]. And Ofcom is itself a form of court and the reason that they took away their licences there is in fact a reason for this. You see when ARY filed for bankruptcy, let me give you some context for this. ARY had said that they would pay all the costs and would comply with any court orders, but what happened was that ARY’s Chief Operating Officer Fayaz Ghafoor, he filed for bankruptcy. At this point in time he has left the UK as he has filed for bankruptcy. As a result of that, the bailiffs would have called at his house and the police would arrest and place him in jail, and he has therefore left here [the UK].
In addition, the ARY company has gone into liquidation and it has filed for bankruptcy. Because of all this, Geo returned to the courts and its lawyers said to the courts that this is all a fraud. At this point, Ofcom, the media regulator, investigated the matter after three weeks and it found that ARY’s owner was not here [in the UK] and therefore Ofcom revoked ARY’s licences. Now ARY can apply for its licences, but it will be an uphill task to find a way to get its licences back”.
The programme continued with further discussion about the High Court judgment and ARY. No further reference was made to Mr Ghafoor in the programme.
Gresham Legal complained about the programme. Its representative said that the programme suggested that Mr Ghafoor had fled the UK because he was at risk of arrest and imprisonment, and that bailiffs would be attending his home to seize goods. However, Gresham Legal said that none of these allegations were true and that the allegation that Mr Ghafoor had fled the UK carried the clear, albeit false, meaning that he was guilty of criminal offences.
Geo TV responded that the report had included a discussion on ARY’s liquidation and the closure of its operations as a result. The broadcaster said that it was an undisputed fact that Mr Ghafoor had filed for bankruptcy within two weeks of a court order for costs and damages given as a result of the libel proceedings against Mr Ghafoor and ARY, and that Mr Ghafoor had left for Dubai shortly afterwards.
Geo TV rejected the suggestion that comments made by Mr Shah were made maliciously, or were intended to cause Mr Ghafoor harm or embarrassment. The broadcaster submitted that any embarrassment caused had been because of Mr Ghafoor’s own actions, rather than the discussion of them in the report. It said that as a “media figure”, Mr Ghafoor should have expected the fact that he had filed for bankruptcy would be a topic for discussion.
Geo TV said that Mr Shah’s comments about Mr Ghafoor were not unjust or unfair. It said that Mr Ghafoor had lost a major and high-profile libel case and, rather than paying the damages and legal costs, he had instead declared himself bankrupt and left the country. The broadcaster said any reasonable Pakistani viewer would have assumed that Mr Ghafoor had left the country rather than face his creditors, and that Mr Shah’s comments therefore “simply reflected what the ordinary Pakistani viewer was thinking”.
The broadcaster said that the comment about “Mr Ghafoor’s arrest” was made in the spur of the moment, and most Pakistani viewers would have assumed that somebody that had been made bankrupt would be arrested. Geo TV said therefore that it was “far-fetched” to suggest that Mr Ghafoor was treated unfairly or unjustly.
Gresham Legal also complained that Mr Ghafoor was not given notice of the allegations about him in the programme in advance, therefore denying him an opportunity to comment or respond to them.
Geo TV rejected the suggestion that Mr Ghafoor was not contacted previously. It said that its editorial team had attempted to contact him, but had been unable to do so because his mobile number was “unreachable”. The broadcaster said that an email dated 20th December 2016 to the complainant (provided to Ofcom) demonstrated that Mr Ghafoor had been contacted by the programme’s producer and asked to take part in the programme, however, no response was received. The broadcaster said that it continued to offer Mr Ghafoor the opportunity to respond to the allegations.
Geo TV said that it took very seriously its responsibilities and obligations as a broadcaster and said that it therefore accepted that in this instance, the allegation that Mr Ghafoor had left the UK because bailiffs would have called at his house and police would arrest him and place him in jail did not meet its usual high standard of journalism. It said that it had, therefore, included the following on-air clarification, in the form of scrolling text, during an edition of Naya Pakistan broadcast on 5th August 2017 on Geo News and Geo Tez:
“On the Naya Pakistan show on 3 February 2017 we broadcast live, and later repeated on GEO TEZ, a segment in the show about ARY Network and Fayaz Ghafoor’s libel case defeat in the UK. Murtaza Ali Shah appeared as a guest on that programme and stated that following Mr Ghafoor filing for personal bankruptcy, the bailiffs would have called at his house and the police would arrest and place him in jail, and he has therefore left the country.
While it is correct that Mr Ghafoor filed for personal bankruptcy, it was plainly incorrect to state that Mr Ghafoor’s decision to leave the country following it was in order to avoid the bailiffs, or to evade the police and arrest and jail. We accept that such an allegation should not have been broadcast and wish to set the record straight. We wish to apologise to Mr Ghafoor for broadcasting such an allegation”.
Ofcom viewed the programme and examined the translated transcript of it, in particular the comments made by Mr Shah that Mr Ghafoor had filed for bankruptcy and left the UK and that, as a result of Mr Ghafoor’s actions, police officers would be looking to “arrest him and place him in jail”. We considered that these comments amounted to serious allegations of wrongdoing by Mr Ghafoor, and that viewers may have reasonably perceived him to have fled the country to avoid imprisonment. In our view, these comments had the potential to materially and adversely affect viewers’ opinions of Mr Ghafoor negatively and in a way that was unfair. Ofcom then considered whether the presentation of these comments in the programme as broadcast resulted in unfairness to the complainant.
Ofcom considered the comments made against Mr Ghafoor amounted to significant allegations about his conduct which had the clear potential to materially and adversely affect viewers’ opinions of him. For these reasons, Ofcom considered that, in the particular circumstances of this case, the broadcaster did not take reasonable care to satisfy itself that material facts had not been presented, disregarded or omitted in the programme, and this resulted in unfairness to Mr Ghafoor.
Given the serious nature of the allegations made in the programme about Mr Ghafoor, Ofcom considered that the broadcaster was required to provide him with an appropriate and timely opportunity to respond. Ofcom considered that its failure to do so resulted in unfairness to Mr Ghafoor.
Ofcom has upheld this complaint made by Gresham Legal on behalf of Mr Ghafoor of unjust or unfair treatment in the programme as broadcast.