Spooks and hacks in Pakistan
The BBC Urdu service’s Masud Alam looks at the various ways in which the authorities seek to control Pakistan’s independent media. He starts off by describing an unusual encounter at a news conference.He is tall and rugged. His hair is close-cropped and he’s wearing a white salwar kameez and leather sandals. He has a notebook and a pen in hand and he’s busy, like other journalists present at the news conference, taking notes.
Only, he is not a journalist.
“He’s the secret wallah,” the reporter sitting next to me tells me with a half smile. He can’t believe that I do not know this character. Every journalist in Islamabad recognises the men from intelligence agencies who routinely attend all news conferences and other media gatherings.
I walk up to him after the event.
“Which paper are you with?”
He pretends not to have listened. Some of the reporters around us have heard me, though, and they are now watching us with interest.
“Excuse me,” I persist, “I’m so and so. And you are?”
“I am not a journalist,” he says with a straight face, but he’s getting unsettled by the attention he’s getting from journalists around us who seem to be enjoying this exchange immensely.
“Then what brings you to this news conference?” I ask in a friendly manner.
“I work for Special Branch,” comes a clipped and final reply. He’s visibly annoyed by now and turns his face away to signal an end to our conversation.
Controlling the media
Special Branch is the intelligence gathering unit of police. There are dozens of other civilian and military intelligence agencies operating alongside, and when required, working “on” journalists on a day-to-day basis.
Pakistani journalists are quite used to the presence of these agents among their ranks. They also seem to accept, without resentment, the existence of so-called reporters among them, who are known to get their stories and their salaries from intelligence agencies.
The Fourth Estate in Pakistan is deeply penetrated by the Fifth Column.
These spies and fake journalists are however only the foot soldiers. The government of Pakistan has at its disposal much more potent means of controlling the media:
- distribution of advertising budget;
- the carrot of freebies and favours;
- the stick of regulatory bodies and vaguely worded laws;
- and whimsical curbs on media brought on simply by a presidential decree.
If the above measures fail to impress a professional journalist, the state may fail to protect him or her against harassment, kidnapping, torture and murder.
Indeed several of these disappearances and even some murders are blamed on state intelligence agencies but the claim is difficult to prove in any court of law as all the organs of the state are averse to releasing information that may implicate intelligence agencies in a crime.
Successive civilian and military governments have used and abused these powers with equal relish. Only, the intelligence agencies act more ruthlessly during military regimes.
In the country’s tribal region alone, “six journalists have been killed since the beginning of 2000. Eleven journalists have been killed in all of Pakistan since that time,” says the independent New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
“Other than in the 2002 death of Daniel Pearl, the US reporter for The Wall Street Journal, none of the cases has been fully investigated, and no one has been charged with a crime.”
Living in these circumstances, journalists are expected to be timid, over-cautious and unprofessional in their approach to newsgathering. Many Pakistani journalists are just that.
But much to the annoyance of the state, there’s still a healthy and thriving segment of the media that is not just good, it’s the best in the region.
And this comes from a man who is amply qualified and neutral enough to comment on the subject: the editor of Himal, a Nepal-based South Asian news and current affairs magazine.
In a presentation in Toronto many years ago, Kanak Mani Dixit dwelled on the strengths and weaknesses of the media (the only independent medium at that time was print) in South Asia, with a particular emphasis on India and Pakistan.
He was of the view that the vernacular papers in both countries are substandard in content and design, but English-language publications maintain a reasonably high standard of professionalism.
And whereas India’s brand of journalism is by and large cautious and almost respectful of the authority and image of the state, its Pakistani counterpart is bold and vociferous to the point of defying authority, Dixit said.
The assessment is true to this day.
At a party recently I ran into the bureau chief of a French news group, based in Islamabad. “How come you didn’t make India your regional base, like the majority of news organisations including the BBC,” I asked her.
“What is there to do in India? Story after story on how the economy is booming and how Bollywood is taking over the world? I like it here. This is a challenging and exciting environment, both for foreign and indigenous journalists,” she said.
Challenging this environment definitely is.
So much so that the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) called for journalists’ organisations from around the world to join in an international day of action earlier this month, to protest at the grave situation threatening the safety of journalists and freedom of expression in Pakistan.
The latest challenge to freedom of expression is a presidential decree imposing restrictions on the coverage of the suspended chief justice of Pakistan’s travels to address lawyers. These trips have gradually turned into public rallies in support of the rule of law and democracy, and by default, against the rule of Gen Musharraf.
The government did announce that it was reversing the latest curbs after journalists’ protests, but it hasn’t done it so far.
It is the same government that never tires of telling Pakistanis and the world that it has given the media unprecedented freedom.
The claim, many in the media say, is childish, if not outright offensive to the professional journalists who have wrested whatever freedom they enjoy today, from successive autocratic rulers, over several decades.
The one thing this government has encouraged is the proliferation of media. That has meant more of its agents into the mainstream. But there’s nothing that the media is free to do now that it wasn’t allowed 10 years ago.
Pakistani media have always thrived on the professionalism and dedication of a few journalists, rather than the patronage of state or largesse of media owners.
And this is how it will continue to be.
Back in 1992, I was attacked inside the press gallery of the National Assembly of Pakistan, in front of the FULL press gallery. This assault was published throughout the Pak-Press. I filed written complaint with the Speaker of the National-Assembly & also a criminal-case in Islamabad-court(Majistrate-Rural) against the attackers. The attackers were of course carrying journalist cards. During the APNS meeting held shortly thereafter, I complained in person to the POWERFUL Owners of the Newspapers, for which the attackers worked. It is a SAD story in Pakistan, of the powerful media owners financial interest much above the interest of honest-journalist. However, I have personally seen the real-professional journalists in Pakistan, who have no money or property or future; but they speak & ask questions from people in power, much better than in UK or US. They are the real foot soldiers in the present battle for democracy in Pakistan. ALL my prayers for the great journalists in Pakistan, who are alone challenging the dictator(General Musharraf), while the so called English media (of democratic countries) is PURPOSEFULLY protecting the Dictator Musharaf.
Engr Arshad Ali Khan,
UMMAA-Broadcasting, Rolla, Missouri-65401, USA