Pakistan’s media wars
By Beena Sarwar
4 July 2014
What is the political fallout of the battle between a media behemoth and Pakistan’s largest security agency?
When the first private television news channel in Pakistan was given a license to operate in 2002, no one imagined that 12 years down the road it would find itself pitted against one of the country’s most powerful and feared security agencies, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). This fight between a media group and one of the strongest apparatuses of the state can be seen as representing the ongoing conflict in Pakistan today, between those who uphold the traditional security paradigm (which sees groups such as the Taliban as heroic Islamic warriors, India as the enemy and Islam as the ideology of Pakistan) and those who seek to question it.
No one could have predicted that the channel in question would be suspended from broadcast – not once, but twice – long after the military dictator against whom Pakistani journalists had rallied so heroically against, was dead and gone. The channel was first shut down, along with other television channels, in 2007 by the military dictator General Pervez Musharraf, who is ironically credited with opening up the airwaves in 2002. The second time is now, in 2014, under an elected civilian government. ‘Blasphemy’ charges have been filed against the owner and the host of a morning show in various police stations, at the instigation of a rival television channel.
For me the political fallout of these media wars has also been a personal one.
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A look back
I started out as a journalist with the daily ‘eveninger’ the Star in the 1980s. General Zia-ul-Haq had recently ousted the elected Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in a coup in 1977. Two years later, Bhutto was executed on trumped up murder charges. After a decade in print media, I went back to school in 2000 and got a Masters degree in documentary filmmaking. When I returned to Pakistan, I became part of the launch team of Pakistan’s first 24/7 television news channel – Geo TV. Pakistan was then once again under a military dictatorship supported by the United States and Saudi Arabia. The ‘liberal’ dictator, Gen Musharraf (who usurped power by staging a coup in 1999), was tasked by the US to counter the Taliban, which had emerged as a result of the ‘Islamisation’ imposed on Pakistan by Gen Zia. The government had monopoly on television broadcasting until 2002, and the state-owned and run Pakistan Television (PTV) showed great drama serials but had zero credibility in terms of its news broadcasts. Today, there are over a hundred television channels in Pakistan, led by Geo’s 24/7 news channel.
I currently work as a part-time editor for ‘Aman ki Asha’ (hope for peace), an initiative launched by the Jang Group (which also runs Geo TV) in 2010 in conjunction with the Times of India. In this digital age, I can edit and email the materials to be published to a page designer halfway across the world. Within minutes of my approving the final pdf, the page is rolled out on a printing press as part of the newspaper to be distributed the next morning. Once the material is up on a website, its contents shared via Twitter and Facebook, it can immediately be discussed and dissected. The Internet has enabled instant news and instant feedback. The power of the news consumer has never been greater. The citizen journalist is now everywhere, armed with a smartphone, ready to bear witness and to spread the word. If the mainstream media won’t pick up an issue, bloggers and social media users will take it up. Professional journalists and mainstream media houses are forced to pay attention.
Looking back, what the repercussions of Gen Zia’s attempts to impose a conservative view of morality and religion on Pakistan would be seem obvious now. Gen Musharraf, who tried to reverse that trend, was held back by two factors. One, as a dictator, he had neither the moral authority nor the people’s mandate. And two, despite some of his ‘liberal’ views, he was stuck in the old security paradigm.
During the Cold War, Pakistan under Gen Zia had sought to align itself militarily with the US as a safeguard against its ‘enemy’ India. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, it became politically and financially expedient for Pakistan to fight a proxy war for America against the ‘godless’ Communists. Along with their Saudi allies, Pakistan and America turned the Afghan war of national liberation into a religious war, a ‘jihad’ – a concept that would gain new currency in the modern world. This ‘jihad’ recruited Islamist fighters from around the world – Chechnya, Yemen, Sudan, to name just a few. Osama bin Laden was one of them. The Zia regime crushed political opposition ruthlessly. Hundreds were imprisoned, tortured, flogged, executed and exiled. The media was heavily censored.
As a journalist, the late 1980s were days of painstaking research buried in dusty newsprint files in the newspaper library, or covering protest demonstrations, art shows and theatre performances. We would type our articles out on manual typewriters on newsprint paper. Proofreading meant going through each line, word by word. Everything was done manually, including the newspaper layouts; our late colleague Kaleem (‘Column’) Omar carried his bylines in his pocket to whip out in case the copy-paster forgot to glue it on. Once an editor felt that the use of the word ‘homosexual’ in an interview I had done violated the norms of ‘decency’, so he had the poor fellows at the printing press sit up all night using markers to black out the word from all the printed copies.
Today, no one in Pakistan would consider the word ‘homosexual’ offensive enough to censor it. Yet, as people’s minds and worldviews open up, traditionalists and conservatives feel more threatened. As they dig in their heels, their conservatism is reinforced by the men with guns – the militants and some among the military. During Gen Zia’s brutal military regime, blacking out ‘indecent’ words was the least of our problems as journalists. Crushing political opposition included a crackdown on the media, and the regime arrested and imprisoned dissenting journalists. Three journalists, including Khawar Naeem Hashmi and Nasir Zaidi from the Jang/Geo group, were whipped in public on 13 May 1978, receiving upto 15 lashes on their naked backs.
‘Azadi gali’ is alive again
Newspapers in the 1980s also regularly got ‘press advice’ notes. Since many writers were banned, we would publish their pieces under pseudonyms, which we would have to subsequently change, as the authorities (including newspaper owners trying not to get into trouble) wised up to who they were. As a way of protesting these forms of control, newspapers sometimes published blank spaces, indicating that an ‘objectionable’ article had been held back from publication. This kind of protest was later used in other parts of the world too, in South Africa, China and Egypt. We thought we had seen the last of this practice in Pakistan, but on 22 March 2014, the front page of the Express Tribune’s (ET) weekend section carried a prominent white space. As a local partner of the New York Times, this is where ET should have published the report “What Pakistan knew about bin Laden” by Carlotta Gall.
Most Pakistani newspapers did report on the piece, since “it was simply too controversial to ignore completely,” as the media monitoring blog Pakistan Media Watch pointed out. However, such reports mainly focused on why Gall’s account could not be trusted. Pakistan Media Watch commented:
Express Tribune found itself faced with a difficult decision. It could publish the piece and not only run afoul of its policy against writing against terrorism, but also find itself on the wrong side of both militants and security agencies. This is where most media groups would replace the report with one of two things: Either a piece that criticises the report, or something that doesn’t mention it at all. Express Tribune did something else. They published nothing.
By publishing a large blank space, ET withheld the controversial information, but “they also drew attention to the fact that there was something that someone powerful didn’t want people to read”. Since readers can access the information via the Internet, it is possible that ET did both: censor the piece as well as direct attention to it.
On 20 May, ET did it again. Readers were greeted with a large blank space where an article should have appeared. This time it was “Pakistan’s Tyranny of Blasphemy”, a New York Times op-ed by Ali Sethi. The two censored pieces – one on the militant-military nexus and the other on the blasphemy issue – indicate Pakistan’s preoccupation with the narrative of national security and the increasing number of challenges it faces. “There was a feeling that we were beginning to take back some of the turf that had been occupied by these forces,” says Geo TV President Imran Aslam.
As a way of protesting these forms of control, newspapers sometimes published blank spaces, indicating that an ‘objectionable’ article had been held back from publication.
The private channels were doing fine until they defied Musharraf and went ahead and gave extensive coverage to the popular ‘lawyers’ movement’ which was catalysed by his attempt to ‘fire’ the Chief Justice of Pakistan. In his attempt to control the country (and the narrative), Gen Musharraf imposed emergency rule in November 2007 – ironically, a coup against himself as he suspended the constitution while serving both as the country’s President and the chief-of-army staff. He suspended all private news channels, and the channel taken off air the longest was Geo TV. Consequently, a nameless little lane in front of the Jang/Geo office in Karachi’s business district sprung into life with protest slogans, music, poetry and speeches. In the process, it got a name – ‘Azadi Gali’ (Freedom Street). Today, Geo is once again under suspension and Azadi Gali is alive once more.
Geo versus ISI
The storm had been brewing for some time. It came to a head after the murderous attack on one of Geo’s top television journalists, Hamid Mir, on 19 April this year. Mir was seriously injured but survived. His younger brother Amir Mir – whom I’ve known since he was a college student working as a reporter at the Frontier Post when I was Features Editor there – read out a statement outside Hamid’s hospital room, accusing ISI of the attempted murder. Geo broadcast the accusation for eight hours (complete with a photo of the ISI chief), before finally airing the military’s denial. Undoubtedly, this was a serious lapse of journalistic ethics, the most extreme example of the media giant’s tendency to sensationalise news or vilify someone. Earlier targets ranged from then President Asif Ali Zardari to human-rights advocate Asma Jahangir. However, no one had retaliated the way ISI did. And no one had ever put the ISI on the mat like that. The situation since then has spiraled downhill. The Ministry of Defence demanded that Geo TV’s license be suspended for broadcasting these allegations. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) that has the authority to order such a suspension could not do so, as it was without a chairman at the time. Out in full force came the ‘Dirty Tricks Brigade’(DTB) – my term for those involved in behind-the-scenes manipulation of narratives – also referred to in Pakistan variously as ‘hidden hands’, ‘angels’ and ‘Deep State’. Under pressure, cable operators dropped Geo TV (not just the news channel but also the sports and entertainment channels) altogether or moved them down the channel listing, making it difficult to find them. Signals were distorted so that viewers who managed to access the channels wouldn’t be able to see or hear them properly.
There were large demonstrations in favour of the ISI, with banners and billboards featuring the ISI chief’s portrait as if it was an election campaign. Filling the ranks of the protestors were the well-heeled middle class, educated supporters of the former cricket hero Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (who have levelled an accusation against the channel of having been involved in the rigging in the 2013 general elections), as well as members of religious and banned militant organisations. In cyberspace, the DTB launched an attack using its social media operatives who have multiple fake identities. Hiding behind their anonymity, they regularly troll and abuse those who espouse progressive causes and support a democratic vision of Pakistan, calling them ‘traitors’ and ‘enemy agents’. Such accusations are not new.
In March 2012, a ‘defence analyst’ called Zaid Hamid, known for his links with intelligence agencies, submitted a petition to the Supreme Court of Pakistan seeking a treason trial against Pakistan’s most prominent human-rights lawyer Asma Jahangir, along with several journalists, including me. The petition seeks the death penalty against us for allegedly undermining the two-nation theory and the glory of Islam; projecting the country’s founder Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah as secular; and “attacking the image of armed forces and ISI” at “the behest of India”. Hamid alleges that we “portend an existential risk to Pakistan’s national security”.
The court did not accept the petition for hearing then. But two years later, on 7 May 2014, soon after the ISI-Jang/Geo showdown began, a judge rejected the objections raised by the Supreme Court registrar and admitted the petition for hearing. The petition itself is too ridiculous to be taken seriously. However, it has a strong nuisance value, and it aligns with the narrative being crafted by the DTB.
The second and more dangerous phase of this narrative construction began in mid-May, weeks after the Geo-ISI conflict, when Mubashir Luqman, a talk-show host on a rival channel, ARY TV, alleged that a Geo TV morning show had broadcast ‘blasphemous’ content. He invited religious leaders to his talk show who labelled the Geo TV show ‘un-Islamic’. Luqman followed this up with more such offensive and slanderous episodes. This is highly dangerous in a country where such accusations have led to almost 60 ‘blasphemy murders’ since 1993. The morning show host on Geo was quick to apologise for the unintentional lapse. However, the attacks and complaints continued.
Unknown armed men attacked and torched Jang Group’s vans carrying bundles of newspapers.
The tension between Luqman and the Jang Group is not new. Luqman has been in the forefront of the campaign against Jang Group’s initiatives like ‘Aman ki Asha’ and ‘Zara Sochiye’ (just think), which focuses on education, for some time now. Last September, the Jang Group sued Luqman and Zaid Hamid for their slanderous propaganda, and a district court judge even issued their arrest warrants, although they were never arrested. Earlier, the Jang Group had also sued Hamid for defamation in the Islamabad High Court, which had restrained him from making baseless allegations against the Jang/Geo Group.
After Luqman’s latest attack on Geo, the PEMRA website received over 30,000 complaints against Geo. Blasphemy complaints – over 60 at last count – were registered at police stations around the country against the Jang/Geo proprietors, employees, and the talk-show host and guests in the morning show in question. Unknown armed men attacked and torched Jang Group’s vans carrying bundles of newspapers. They beat up the resident editor of the Jang Multan bureau, abusing him and calling him a ‘traitor’. Jang Group employees are being followed and their phones tapped. They are afraid to carry copies of the paper home.
On 26 May 2014, the media group published a front-page apology to the ISI, its chief Lieutenant General Zaheerul Islam, his family, the Pakistan Army and Geo viewers, acknowledging that its coverage immediately after the attack on Hamid Mir “was excessive, distressful and emotional” besides being “misleading, disproportionate and inappropriate giving impression of a campaign”. The group also stated that it has always appreciated the army’s “sacrifices to safeguard our borders and the security of our country”. This attempt at damage control did not work.
On 5 June, an anti-terrorism court judge ordered the arrest of Jang/Geo owner Mir Shakilur Rehman and others on blasphemy charges. The Jang Group is trying to get all the complaints consolidated in one place. “We need to quash these charges,” says Geo TV President Imran Aslam. “The problem is that no judge or lawyer is willing to take this case.” His fear is particularly valid after the murder of the prominent advocate Rashid Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, gunned down in his office in Multan on 7 May (the same day as the Supreme Court admitted Zaid Hamid’s outrageous treason petition). Rehman was defending a young university teacher accused of blasphemy who is still in prison. Members of banned militant organisations, as well as lawyers affiliated with such groups, had warned him not to take up this case.
The day the Jang Group announced that it was suing the Ministry of Defence, the ISI, and PEMRA for damages, the government appointed an acting chairman, a former police chief, for PEMRA – who ordered Geo TV to suspend broadcasting for 15 days and fined it PKR 10 million for defaming the ISI. The Ministry of Defence expressed its dissatisfaction with the punishment, terming it as inadequate.
As a sideshow, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) blocked progressive pages on Facebook, many of which promote an anti-Taliban narrative. The largest of these pages, run by the popular leftist musician-activists Laal (Red), with over 400,000 followers, was restored within 48 hours, after hectic lobbying by civil-rights groups and the band itself. PTA denied having blocked any pages, while Facebook officials confirmed that the government had demanded the blockage.
On the other hand, the government takes little notice of the pro-militant pages, which continue to operate with impunity. After numerous complaints, Facebook finally took down the Umar Media page run by the Pakistani Taliban’s media wing, in the aftermath of the attack on Karachi airport on 8 June 2014.
By the time this is published a battle or two may have been won, but the fight continues. Who will win: the forces of the status quo operating outside the purview of the law, or those seeking greater openness, transparency, accountability and democracy?
If I had to place a bet, it would be on the latter. It is only a matter of time.
~Beena Sarwar is a Pakistani journalist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is also an editorial advisor at Himal.