‘Zardari TV’ won’t restore People’s Party or media freedom

Zardari Bol TVAsif Ali Zardari has become the second former president to find a new career in media after Gen Musharraf was announced as having a new show last month. Just like when the former military dictators show was announced, the civilian politician’s announcement was also met with jokes on social media.

Some PPP supporters were not impressed with the move.

Others are making the more obvious point about Zardari joining none other than the controversial Bol TV.

However, this last point may be the point completely. Pakistan media has been under extreme pressure from GHQ which has only increased since arrival of new COAS Gen Qamar Bajwa. What better way to counter allegations of Army censorship than to have someone like Asif Zardari appear on a channel allegedly supported by agencies? Surely no one can accuse Zardari of being an establishment stooge.

It is true that Zardari is no establishment stooge, but it is also true that the former president is well known as an excellent politician who knows ‘the art of the deal’. PPP has seen its fortunes steadily sinking since its historic losses in 2013. Since that time, the party has been grasping as any opportunity to reinvent itself away from ‘Roti, Kapra aur Makaan’ to some sort of generic political party with a broader middle class appeal. Bilawal was rebooted as Kashmir mujahid, party leaders came out in support of military courts by blaming civilian institutions, and the party that has stood strongest for religious minorities has shown weakness on important issues like forced conversion. Zardari is no stooge, but does seem like PPP leaders have been taking some very bad advise and now are once again trying to be overly clever by taking the opportunity to get on TV in exchange for providing cover for Army’s media managers.

Whatever the true reasoning is impossible to know, and those who actually know will never tell it. What we can be sure of is that the antidote for military media managers is not political media managers. In this era of ‘fake news’ and media manipulation, it is becoming harder and harder to know what is true. The solution is to increase the number of professional journalists who are investigating and reporting the facts without ideological bias. Adding more politicians to the mix only adds to the confusion, which is something neither People’s Party nor media cannot afford.

Who’s Afraid of Declan Walsh?

Declan Walsh

One of the more interesting sub-plots of the Axact thriller is the case of the New York Times reporter who broke the story. The reporter, Declan Walsh, was unceremoniously expelled from Pakistan two years ago, a fact belaboured by Axact’s defenders.

What exactly were these “activities against the state”? Well, like his report on Axact, they were investigative pieces that lifted the lid on some rather unsavoury dishes. When the Axact expose burst onto the scene, many were asking which piece it was that got the New York Times reporter expelled. There’s some disagreement about which was the ultimate sin, but what is more likely is that there was not one piece but a pattern in the reporting that was objected to.

In 2011, Mr Walsh wrote a long report titled ‘Pakistan’s secret dirty war‘ about what’s going on in Balochistan – a topic that some quarters would prefer not be discussed.

In 2012, he filed a report on Kamra Airbase attack that the target was “believed to be one of the locations where part of Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile” – a claim that was unwelcome for obvious reasons.

In 2013, Mr Walsh reported that American military officials believed Pakistan was lying about drone strikes to cover up our own airstrikes. A few days later, his visa was cancelled and Declan Walsh ordered to leave the country immediately.

For those of us whose perspective is molded by hyper-nationalist self-appointed ‘patriots’, that is to say all of us, this looks like a clear pattern of “anti-state activities” by the New York Times reporter. If we are willing to set aside our nationalist instinct towards defensiveness, though, another question emerges: Was any of his reporting actually wrong?

Whether or not these reports were factually incorrect is something that is not easy to answer. Those who know for certain are not interested in the truth coming out. But is this actually serving the country’s interests, or undermining them?

Questions about what is taking place in Balochistan are virtually unanswerable since the military has banned reporters from going there. The result of this is that all manner of allegations can be easily made but very difficult to disprove. Worse, if there are abuses taking place, they are not able to be exposed and corrected. This provides ready fuel to separatist propaganda and undermines the credibility of our own armed forces.

Army officials strongly denied that Kamra airbase was a nuclear site, but that doesn’t mean much. They would deny it even if it were true. Nuclear weapons sites are a carefully kept secret in order to keep them secure. But are they really more secure for being secret? When no one is sure where the weapons are kept, it’s hard to know if they’re really being targeted or not. We have to take Army’s word for it, and it does not serve Army’s interest for the public to know the details of such sensitive matters. Would our nuclear sites actually be more secure if they were public? Out of curiosity I did a quick Google search and discovered that America’s nuclear sites can be seen on Google Maps!

The missiles and their command bunkers have been in the same place “for decades,” Air Force Capt. Edith Sakura of the 90th Missile Wing Office of Public Affairs wrote in an email. “They are near county and state roads that are public access to people. You need security clearances to access the sites; however, it would be hard to ‘hide’ such facilities.”

Moreover, as other commenters noted, the sites are already visited by foreign militaries. Russian officers regularly inspect U.S. missile silos to make sure America is adhering to international arms-control treaties. (And the U.S. sends its own observers to Russia.)

America does not worry about whether someone knows where their nukes are because America’s Army is certain that they are secure. What does it say, then, when we so defensively keep ours a secret?

As for lying about drones, perhaps the less is said the better.

Army will deny each of the claims made in Declan Walsh’s reports, and because they involve sensitive subjects, it would be virtually impossible to prove them. Actually, even if some secret evidence was leaked, it would simply be dismissed as a Western conspiracy against Muslims as has been done in the past. We will accept the denials because what other choice do we have? We will dismiss Declan Walsh as “anti-Pakistan”, and we will sincerely resent him, not because we really believe that he’s a foreign spy but because there is that sinking feeling in the back of our minds that makes us doubt what we have no choice but to believe.

In an important piece by one of Axact’s victims, respected journalist Wajahat S. Khan reflects on his regrets about his brief experience with Bol:

But arrogance has a tone. Denial has a deafening silence. And mirages are self-constructed. I contributed to all three, in my three months at Bol. And played along with the best of them, because of where they came from, who they are, and what it all meant.

Khan’s astoundingly open and honest words sparked an uncomfortable feeling, like they were hitting a bit too close to home.

Arrogance has a tone. Denial has a deafening silence. And mirages are self-constructed.

Wajahat S. Khan may have contributed to all three in his brief time at Bol, but each of us has contibuted to all three during our lives as well. The arrogant tone of our insistence that we are the fortress of Islam. Our silent denial that jihadi ideology is devouring our nation. And the mirage that we have self-constructed that tells us that the number one intelligence agency in the world and most accomplished military in the world will keep us safe and secure…just as long as we don’t ask any questions.

Axact Scandal: 007 Tie-In Only Makes the Plot More Thrilling

axact

The investigative report that exposed Axact’s alleged role in an alleged massive fake degree operation was described by many as ‘breaking the internet’. The embattled IT company has continued to dominate discussion like almost no other, and it’s no surprise. The story has all the elements of a blockbuster movie: Billions of dollars, a charismatic leader who little is really known about, and a network of successful businesses that some say don’t seem to actually produce anything. This is a winning formula on its own, but there is yet another sub-plot that has yet to really begin unfolding, and this one could make Axact the biggest blockbuster of all time: A 007 tie-in.

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Questions about new TV channel should be answered

BOL TV

Questions about exactly who is backing the new Bol TV channel have been circulating since months now, even resulting in the Interior Ministry cancelling the No Objection Certificate (NOC) issued to ‘Labbaik (pvt) Ltd’, the company that owns the channel. The Interior Ministry’s decision to withdraw the NOC came after petitioners prayed the Lahore High Court to verify the source of funding for the new channel.

The petitioner has raised serious questions in his petition especially the source of funding and whether the national institutions have performed their duties pertaining to verify the source of funding were legal or illegitimate. The most important questions were as under : Whether the State Bank of Pakistan and Federal Board of Revenue have performed their legal duties to check the source of billions of rupees that are being poured in to run the TV channel and whether the Minister of Interior and Federal Investigation Agency have checked the credentials of sponsor directors.

Few weeks later, licence was granted by PEMRA but even this only raised more questions such as why the licence was issued without proper clearances from Ministry of Interior and other agencies.

The sudden sale of ‘Labbaik’ and certain incidents in the sale of the company only raised more questions about the antecedents and identities of the backers.

The company on March 4, 2013 applied for induction of four new directors, giving justification that they wanted “to seek investment to have more financial liquidity” for the reliance. In fact, the company was sold to another company “AXACT group”, but the two – the buyer and the seller – concealed it from PEMRA. The authority on March 26, 2013 approved the induction of the ‘new management’ in the company. It is also worth mentioning that according to the PEMRA Ordinance, change of directors is also subject to approval of PEMRA. Separately, transfer of shares is also subject to PEMRA approval, but the entire shares of ‘Labbaik’ were sold without any approval from the authority.

The Labbaik is a sister concern of AXACT, with the same management, as according to the SECP record, until 27.3.2013, all the shares of Labbaik were divided between Siddique Ismael and his son Salman Siddique, but on that date, the company had new owners: Salman Siddique (original owner), Siddiq Ismael (original owner), Shoaib Sheikh (new owner) with 12,500 shares, Aisha Shoaib Sheikh (new owner) with 12,499 shares, Waqas Atiq (new owner) with 12,500 shares and Sarwat Bashir (new owner) with 12,499.

An interesting fact is that on the same date, i.e. 27.3.2013, Salman Siddique resigned as the CEO of the company and the company filed a new Form 29 with the SECP, showing that Shoaib Sheikh, who is the CEO of AXACT, shall be the new CEO of Labbaik on the same day.

It shows that on March 27, 2013, 99.9 percent of shares of Labbaik, as well as the control of the company, were transferred to persons who were not the original shareholders of Labbaik.

A new report which appeared yesterday now claims that the channel is being backed by Dawood Ibrahim and that the software company Axact which now owns Labbaik is a front company of ISI.

Axact is close to Pakistan’s security establishment. Insiders say given its software background and its links with the country’s intelligence agencies, it is seen as a good launching pad for a media channel. Axact also handled a lot of the cyber activities of the ISI, say insiders.

It has also done work for the country’s defence industry and defence housing societies, a fact that it proudly displays on the company website. Axact, however, remains a front, say insiders.

Bol TV has issued a response to the questions terming it as a ‘defamation campaign’ and threatening anyone who asks too many questions with ‘both criminal and civil charges against all those who seek to undermine this cause’.

Bol TV claims that it will be the no. 1 media enterprise in Pakistan and that it will launch a new era of high quality media for the nation. This is a praise worthy goal and it would be disappointing if it cannot achieve this feat due to lingering questions that remain unanswered. To avoid this from happening there needs to be more transparency, not threats which will only convince some people that there is something to hide. Answering the questions by publicly revealing the sources of funding will not only silence the new channels critics but give the channel greater credibility which is desperately needed at this time.

UPDATE: Hindustan Times has issued the following clarification:

With reference to the news article titled “Dawood, ISI ‘setting up’ TV channel in Pakistan” uploaded from New Delhi, India, on our website, www.hindustantimes.com, on 29-09-2013, it is clarified that M/s Axact Pvt Ltd. has denied any such association. In view of the said clarification, the aforementioned article has already been removed from www.hindustantimes.com and any inconvenience connected therewith is regretted.