‘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.

Hawaldar Media Accidentally Exonerates Husain Haqqani

Ex-dictator Gen Musharraf may have fled the country, but he still has a following of loyal subjects supporters, especially among the ranks of hawaldar media officers. Latest example is Lt Col (r) Khalid Masood Khan who vigorously defends the former COAS in an article that is filled with incredible revelations. For example, did you know that:

Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who was already been holding the office of the President and had a history of following the line of Benazir Bhutto would have made a natural and comfortable combination with her as the Prime Minister…

I am closing my eyes and trying hard but still having trouble imagining this magical ‘Musharraf – Bhutto’ regime. Obviously I do not have the powerful imagination of a Lt Colonel.

Did you also know that “General Musharraf however has no allegation of corruption against him”? None! So don’t ask how the General became a billionaire. That is ‘need to know only’ information.

Lt Col Khalid concludes that, ‘The mere fact that Gen. Pervez Musharraf who unprecedentedly returned to Pakistan of his own accord in order to face the charges against him shows his courage through the strength of his character and also proves his innocence.’ Actually, the Colonel is incorrect about the lack of precedence as it was actually set by Husain Haqqani who returned of his own accord in order to face the charges against him in two years earlier. Haqqani will surely be pleased to know that Lt Col Khalid believes this proves his innocence.

During the debate about military courts, there were many who doubted whether military officers would be impartial or any innocents would ever be acquitted. Thanks for Lt Col Khalid we know that military officers can give acquittals and be impartial in their judgment.

Best legal defense is still the brass on one’s shoulders, not the truth on one’s side

Gen Musharraf on a planeThree years ago, Anti-Terrorism Court formally charged Gen Musharraf with murder, criminal conspiracy for murder and facilitation for murder for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. One year later, the ex-dictator listened as another judge read out a new set of charges including high treason for subverting the Constitution when he illegally seized power in 2007. Today, he sits smiling as he sips his favourite Scotch whiskey in Dubai. His dreams of returning to power were dashed by reality, but neither did his nightmare of facing justice come to pass. Instead, Gen Musharraf joins a long history of military dictators who ran way rather than facing justice. Pakistan’s Gen Musharraf name will be included in history books next to Chile’s Gen Pinochet and Uganda’s Gen Idi Amin.

The meaning of this is so clear that it is hardly worth even noting. Dawn has called it, ‘Musharraf’s latest coup‘, and says ‘Increasingly, it appears that the prime minister has accepted the de facto normalisation of military control’. Once again we are reminded that justice in this country is arbitrary, and the best legal defense is still the brass on one’s shoulders, not the truth on one’s side.

However, Gen Musharraf’s retreat is a stark reminder that it is not only mercy that is reserved for the military elite. The excuse given for letting go a suspect charged with murder and treason is that he requires medical treatment. By allowing this, the Court has officially admitted that we are a country soon to have world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal, but we can’t even provide proper medical care for our citizens. If Gen Musharraf, who somehow became a billionaire, can not get proper medical treatment in this country, what is the hope of the common man who does not have the connections or the billions to spend?

Gen Musharraf may have run away from Pakistan, but the rest of us are here to stay. This episode feels familiar because it is, but we can let it drag us down into cynicism or we can take it as a wake up call to take our country back from the powers that are holding it back.

Pakistan’s ‘Untouchables’

Pakistan's untouchables

Anti-Terrorism Court in Quetta has acquitted Gen Musharraf in Akbar Bugti murder case. The outcome is not a surprise. Convicting any military officer, even those of lesser rank than General is nearly impossible. To convict a former Chief of Army Staff? Unthinkable. The fix was in since long, too, as police and other officials conveniently ‘lost’ most of the evidence.

With this acquittal, Gen Musharraf joins a long list of Pakistan’s “untouchables” – individuals who no court can convict and no amount of evidences can satisfactorily condemn. Others include Lashkar-e-Taiba commander Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, Amir Jamaat-ud-Dawa Hafiz Saeed, Jaish-e-Muhammad chief Masood Azhar, and former head of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Malik Ishaq.

This inability to convict certain people has been a disaster. Diplomatically, it has cast doubt among foreign nations about whether we are honest in our efforts to fight terrorism, feeding those who accuse the state of playing double games and using militancy as a strategic asset. At home, it has deteriorated law and order by causing doubt about the willingness or the ability of security agencies to go after certain groups. This only encourages others to commit the same acts.

In the case of Akbar Bugti murder, it is a doubly dangerous outcome because it sends the message to Baloch that the estimated 21,000 missing and 6,000 killed and mutilated are worth less than one General. Anger erupted in Balochistan after Bugti was killed. Do we expect our Baloch brothers to celebrate when his killer walks scot free?