“Standard Operating Procedure: Deny, then deny the denial”

Foreign Office Spokesman Nafees Zakaria

Nawaz Sharif claimed another victory yesterday, as Kuwait has decided to lift six-years old visa ban for Pakistanis after the PM discussed the matter with his counterpart Sheikh Jaber al Mubarak al Hamad al Sabah. However, this victory has been somewhat overshadowed by scandal because by announcing the good news, the government has also exposed itself as making false attacks against those who tell inconvenient truths.

The issue of Kuwait’s visa ban surfaced during debate about American President Donald Trump’s order to ban visas for several Muslim countries known as a ‘Muslim Ban’. During this discussion it was noted by former Ambassador Husain Haqqani that actually Kuwait also had also banned visas for Pakistani citizens since six years ago. Haqqani was immediately attacked by the Foreign Office in an official statement.

Meanwhile, as “fake news” against Pakistan was doing the rounds, the spokesman came down heavily on Pakistan’s former US ambassador Hussain Haqqani who was caught while retweeting five years old news, claiming that Kuwait had put a ban on Pakistani visas.

“It is highly regrettable and deplorable that a person who was honoured to represent Pakistan has been indulging in activities that would hurt Pakistan’s national interests. Unfortunately, he is doing all this at a time when the world is increasingly acknowledging Pakistan’s growing economic potential in the wake of tremendous improvement in the security situation, investor friendly policies and strengthening of democratic institutions”, responded the spokesman.

He added that the more Mr. Haqqani does such malicious and unethical acts, more he exposes his character. “He has not only lost respect among Pakistanis but also among those who attach importance to values”, said the spokesman.

By announcing the reversal of the ban, though, the government has shown that the ‘Fake News’ was coming from none other than spokesman for the Foreign Office Nafees Zakaria!

Haqqani responded to the situation with his famous wit before quickly moving on to more pressing matters:

Whatever one thinks about Husain Haqqani, he has hit the nail on the head this time. “Standard Operating Procedure: Deny, then deny the denial”. We have seen this over and over again, especially with attacks against anyone and everyone who dares to point out inconvenient facts that don’t fit a particular ‘narrative’ of how we wish reality was.

Will the FO apologise for attacking Haqqani’s character when he obviously did nothing but tell the truth? Or was the FO really unaware of Kuwait’s visa ban? If this is the case, then they not only owe Haqqani an apology, but a sincere ‘thank you’ for alerting them to the situation. Either way, the conclusion is clear: Officials need to do more listening, and less attacking, if they want to solve national problems. That is undeniable.

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.

Our addiction to fake news

Over the past year the world’s attention has been drawn to the issue of ‘fake news‘. This has been mostly as a result of the dramatic US election, but as with many issues, in this case it is not a new phenomenon so much as it is a case of once again Americans are late to the party. In Pakistan, fake news is nothing new. Actually, it’s our national addiction.

We have a long history of publishing fake news about military victories. The headlines from 1971 are now legendary17 December 1971 Dawn front pageand every year we celebrate victory in a war we didn’t really win. Over the past few years, our ‘victory‘ over terrorists was reported every few months, only to be followed by another terrorist attack. Fake news websites declaring our intelligence agencies ‘best in the world‘ appear and are reported every year, and who can forget Ahmed Quraishi actually writing a piece defending fake news!

But let’s be fair. While security agencies and their shadowy supporters are most often pointed to for spreading fake news, they are by no means the only guilty party. In recent days we have seen a case where the government news agency reported that BBC was investigating its reporter for planting a fake story against the PM, only to have the BBC immediately deny their report.

This is a particularly fascinating case. Did the government really think they could get away with faking a story about BBC and that BBC would not respond? Aren’t they humiliated? Not likely. Just like with every other case of fake news, the idea was most likely that the original report would be spread far and wide while the denial would be shared among those elites who already questioned the authenticity of APP’s report. Both stories only strengthen the existing views of those who read them.

Even the opposition uses fake news. You have probably seen media reports about PPP chairman Asif Ali Zardari being ‘invited‘ to attend Donald Trump’s swearing in ceremonies.

A senior PPP leader told The Nation, that Zardari had been invited to Trump’s inauguration and he would fly to the US to attend it.

“Bilawal has also been invited but he may not go due to party engagement. Zardari will not be in the US for long,” he said.

This has been followed with social media posts of photos of Zardari along with Sherry Rehman and Rehman Malik attending various functions in Washington DC.

The PPP leaders may be in Washington, but they went on their own, not by any invitation. According to a document from the US Department of State, “foreign delegations will not be invited to Washington for this occasion”.

Trump Swearing In Diplomatic NoteOnce again the question must be asked why a senior PPP leader told the media that Zardari had been ‘invited’ when he clearly had not? The obvious answer is just like the government’s decision to report a fake story about BBC. Even if opponents will read the correction and feel vindicated in their beliefs, supporters will read the fake story and feel pride and spread it to their friends.

So what is the harm in all this fake news if everyone is doing it? At a time when we have finally reached agreement that the need of the hour is national unity, our addiction to fake news is standing in the way of our success. If we cannot even agree on a set of facts, how can we ever agree on a solution?

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