‘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.

Khaki TV

Gen Musharraf Bol TV Gen Musharraf who had tightened the noose on journalists at one time, is also often credited with granting the media the freedom that allowed it to grow into what we have today. However, like many things in Pakistan, there is more to media ‘freedom’ than first meets the eye. Actually, the claim that Musharraf himself freed the media came from none other than the general himself, and was mocked in the international media at the time. Even Moeed Pirzada once admitted that ‘a carefully-created perception of free media inside Pakistan helped the military dictator to market himself’. Despite being exposed in the international press, the strategy worked better than could ever have been dreamed at home and led to the rise of an entire industry of Army/ISI media proxies. Now it looks like that strategy is coming into its latest phase.

Ever since becoming ‘free’, media has seen the likes of Ahmed Quraishi and Zaid Hamid whose journalistic credentials were less important than their talking points. Mainstream anchors have also raised questions about media independence as certain well known voices are widely considered as Army mouthpieces, and those who dare question or criticise GHQ are silenced with threats or worse. It is a coincidence that in this era of ‘media freedom’, this is the quality of ‘journalism’ we are subjected to?

Waj bro will soon have competition, though, from a new media personality even closer to GHQ: The ex-dictator himself. Gen Musharraf has announced that he is joining none other than Bol TV (yes, the same channel that has long been rumoured to be an ISI front). It is more accurate to say that Gen Musharraf is returning to TV since he has played this role before.

Gen Musharraf PTV coup

At a time when whole world is trying to solve the problem of ‘fake news’, Pakistan media is doubling down on the strategy of ‘a carefully-created perception of free media’ to market the Army to itself. Now they will even be joined by the founder of this strategy himself.

World Is Cracking Down On Fake News: Is Pakistan Media At Serious Risk?

After Donald Trump brought the problem of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ to the attention of the world, internet editors have begun to ask questions about the credibility of so-called ‘news’ sources. The latest sign of a widespread crack down on fake news is the announcement that Wikipedia has banned using UK newspaper Daily Mail as a source, terming it as ‘generally unreliable‘. This is a major development because it is banning of a newspaper that was founded 120 years ago, not some shadowy website that popped up over night.

With wide spread concern about the ill effects of ‘fake news’, banning of Daily Mail  may be just the beginning, and Pakistan media may be at serious risk. Since the past several years, dozens of fake news sites in Pakistan have been exposed. The most famous example was blog Cafe Pyala that shined the light on shadowy propaganda rings that appeared close to the deep state including even a Pakistani fake news source called ‘Daily Mail‘! Then last year an APP report may have  accidentally busted another fake news operation with ties to ISI.

Tight control of Pakistan media by Army is already well reported in international media. In 2015, The Guardian published an expose about Army officials threatening journalists and forcing them to self-censor. How can such media be deemed as reliable if it is well known that it is threatened and coerced by Army? These threats have again come under view after a group of bloggers who dared question Army mysteriously disappeared earlier this year, resulting in new global attention to the dangerous turn of censorship in Pakistan.

However, it’s not just censorship that threatens the credibility of Pakistan media as a whole, it is also the number of obvious deep state puppets who dominate the media. There are the obvious jokers like Ahmed Quraishi and Zaid Hamid, but there are also the more ‘serious’ journalists like Mubashir Lucman, whose fake news cost ARY millions after being judged by an international court, or Moeed Pirzada who is widely seen as close to the establishment.

As the world makes moves to limit the negative influence of fake news, will Pakistani media find itself caught between the rock of international questions and the hard place of establishment operations to keep tight control over national discussions? If UK Daily Mail is termed as ‘generally unreliable’, what can we say about most of Pakistani news? As the world community takes on the problem of fake news, Pakistani media will be facing a lot of difficult choices.

They can kidnap a blogger, but they can never disappear the truth

bhensaFour missed calls from my sister. I knew why she kept calling, and I didn’t want to talk about it. When the phone rang the fifth time, I put my phone in my bag and went out for a smoke. I finally called her back when I was able to get alone.

“You need to call Baba.” I expected the usual harassment, but this time my sister was calm. She didn’t sound angry, she sounded tired. I asked her was he upset, but she said he was acting strange. He had seen the news report about Salman Haider and this was bad enough, but it was the rumours about others – some say four, some say nine, some are saying the numbers are still growing. And they’re being targeted for their social media accounts. “I know,” I said, “I’m pushing my luck.” My sister laughed. “You were pushing your luck a few years ago. Now? Now I just think you don’t even care about your safety.” I sat and listened to her silently, watching at an ant as it crawled across my shoe. “If you don’t care about yourself, that’s your problem. But think about how you’re affecting the people around you. It’s not fair.” I promised her I would talk to my father and hung up.

I called my father later that night. We talked for a while, but he didn’t say anything so I finally said, “Baba, I don’t want you to be worried. I’ll quit everything. I don’t really know why I do it anyway.” He was silent. He said, “You always told me you were very careful. Are you worried about something?” I told him, no, I’m very careful. Sometimes I think I’m paranoid, even. But I don’t want him to worry. He snapped at me. “Beta, if you make yourself disappear, then what was the point?” I was stunned. “Listen to me,” he sounded angry, “You are a man, no? Will you hide yourself? Will you wear burqa? No! Be a man! I don’t always agree with you. Sometimes I think you are foolish. But it is your right to be foolish! When I was your age we sat around for hours arguing with each other and no one cared because no one heard us. Now, it is the internet and people are hearing you.” I said, no, no one listens to me. This only made him angrier. “And they will listen when you stop talking? Don’t be stupid! Whatever is happening is only because all of you on the internet must be making some difference.”

There was a moment of silence, then my father sighed deeply. “Beta, listen to me. You are my son. I will worry about you for trying to make a difference. It is my right as your father. However, I will worry about you more if you give up.”

Honestly, I do not know what to think of this situation we are in. It’s easy to believe that agencies are involved. History does not give them a clean chit. But the sad truth is it could be anyone that is behind these disappearances. Extremist groups have also tried to silence secular activists. Can we ever forget the words of Sabeen Mahmud’s killer?

“There wasn’t one particular reason to target her: she was generally promoting liberal, secular values. There were those campaigns of hers, the demonstration outside Lal Masjid [in Islamabad], Pyaar ho jaane do (let there be love) on Valentine’s Day and so on.”

There are forces that are out to silence anyone who challenges their ideology. They are well armed with guns and bombs, but is truth and ideas that will defeat them. They lurk in the shadows, trying to make us silence ourselves. If not, they will reach out from the shadows and silence one of us to send a message. But theirs is an impossible mission. The truth is not a fragile flower than bruises and wilts so easily. It is a hearty plant, deeply rooted and native to this soil. And it has grown into a forest that provides shelter to those who embrace it. They can kidnap a blogger. They can shut down a social media account. But they can never disappear the truth. In the end, we will win.

CENSORED: Who Will Pay?

The following op-ed was originally published by The Nation on 26th Dec. It was quickly deleted from the newspaper’s website due to unknown orders from unknown offices. We are re-posting the piece in accordance with Articles 19 and 19(A) of the Constitution which guarantee “the right to freedom of speech and expression, and…freedom of the press” as well as “the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance”.

Pakistan Media

So Pakistan’s public will be made to bear the cost of about three million pounds damages and costs for the case filed by Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman (MSR) of the Jang/ Geo group against ARY channel for Mubashir Luqman’s twenty four libelous shows.
This will be the result of the UK High Court’s verdict against ARY for twenty four unbridled and defamatory programmes by Mubashir Lucman against MSR whilst at ARY.

But the UK court didn’t ask the citizens to pay, you might remark.
And you would be right to remark thus.
The court has stipulated ARY to pay out for damaging MSR’s reputation and endangering his life, as a lesson to ARY (and others) to not indulge in such activities.
But imagine: will the owner of ARY channel Salman Iqbal take this lying down, when he has no dog in the game except support from ‘the agencies’? A one-time loss he might even be willing to bear.
But given the slew of cases now being filed in the United Kingdom against ARY (including by the strongest Pakistani industrialist, Mian Mansha, and human rights activist Malala’s father) he would be inclined to bill the agencies for this bill, to set a precedent and basis for them footing the bills for all he has been doing at their behest.

Which brings us back to ‘Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency’.
Salman Iqbal will likely forward the bill to them.
And ‘they’ should rightly pay.
But what does that mean for us, the citizens? What it means is that in addition to its already invisible and unaccountable budget, millions of further pounds will have to be allocated, such that it can pay the bills for the new trend in foreign suits.

Is this, then, not the time for the people and the parliament to renew calls to bring the ‘the primary intelligence agency’ under democratic and financial oversight? This latest ARY casualty would just serve as the peg, the actual thousand leagues under the sea that is ‘the intelligence agency’ being the real target.

But here I must make a very important correction: in recent years the PR arm of the military has been a veritable arm of the military’s intelligence agencies, with the head of said PR agency, while leading the onslaught of military chief’s PR campaign, leading social media attacks on human rights and democracy activists, and leading social media attacks on ‘anti-nationalists’ and ‘ghaddars’ with his bevvy of the ‘Baloch girl’ army, has been reigning supreme.

So will this PR agency be made to pay part of the ARY bills (present and future)? Clearly, whilst ARY is now somewhat chained because of its broadcasts in the UK, BOL will carry on unfettered (to my knowledge it does not broadcast in other jurisdictions, and will cancel any plans to do so because of the ARY fiasco).

But what all this means is that we, the Pakistani citizens, will end up paying more for attacks against us, in the shape of (nontransparent) higher budgets for the country’s premier PR and intelligence agencies.

Moving on to Qazi Faez Isa and Najam Sethi’s take on the report: I was one of the first persons to identify the gaping hole in the honourable justice’s report.
That of not holding the Frontier Corp (FC) to account in any manner for the Quetta horror, obliterating in one fell an entire generation of lawyers and activists.
But Sethi saheb’s editorial of last Friday, whilst correctly criticizing Justice Isa’s report for not holding security agencies to account, ‘doth protest too much’ against the criticism of Chaudhry Nisar, the Interior Minister.
Not a word spoken against him in the Quetta Commission Report is untrue.
Did he not ignore all requests to proscribe Jamat-ul-Ahrar and Jamat-ud-Dawa Al Almi for months despite their claims (and no evidence to the contrary) of having perpetrated the Quetta lawyers massacre? Was he not caught hiding behind NACTA, which was hiding behind the ISI, which said, ‘they should have done their job per the law (despite the unwritten norms with regard to us’?

Whilst I’m the first one to agree with Sethi sahib regarding the egregious oversight with regard to security agencies far as the Quetta Inquiry Commission report is concerned, I am not with him in trying to exonerate the Minister of Interior.
I understand that what Sethi saheb is saying is that this is unfair.
But then rather than exonerate the boys’ man Chaudhry Nisar, why not question ‘them’? Why not try and expose ‘them’ rather than shield elements in the government? Let Chaudhry Nisar be the first casualty.
Only after might we be able to reach his enablers? My most humble submission to Sethi saheb: let’s catch what we can; only it can lead to the elements we have never been able to ‘catch’.
Let’s not exonerate obvious culprits.
Let’s try and get through to culprits via culprits.

The writer is a human rights worker and freelance columnist. Follow her on Twitter at @gulbukhari