Message management in Pakistan
Recently ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has decided to take on the “forces” that had him unseated. On Dec. 5, he hinted broadly at the hand of the Army behind the “scheme” to push him from power. He pointed to past subversions of democracy by generals and stated that he was a victim of the Pakistani “tradition” that prevented prime ministers from completing their five years in office. As he spoke, his still-in-power party was facing an assault from a majority of the cable news channels and newspapers for having insulted Islam’s Prophet. Not one channel defended him outright and the few accused of siding with him “against the institutions” tried very hard to “balance” their coverage of the political aftermath of his ouster.
One glaring example of aggressive partisanship against him was BOL News, a product of a software and education-through-correspondence company called Axact. Despite criminal cases in the courts, it was able to attract through high salaries a number of well-known TV anchors. Just as it was poised to “revolutionize” the media in Pakistan, a court in New York found it guilty of distributing 370 fake degrees through correspondence. Its representative in America was caught and jailed after his confession. Back in Pakistan, this is not how Axact was treated. BOL News did not go off the air but started flying high with anti-Nawaz and pro-Army agitational propaganda, which made it impregnable.
The BOL style was aggressive if not abusive. It paid its anchors well for sheer defamation palmed off as patriotism defending the honor of the Army which Sharif was “out to smear” through leaking negative reports to “friendly” newspapers. GEO News and The News came under fire more directly because of their past “misdemeanor” with the institution of the Army. Typically, retired senior Army officers-turned-“discussants” figured on it, blasting the Sharif government for alleged corruption and betrayal of the “national cause” accusing Sharif of personally cozying up to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Then the law in Pakistan caught up with BOL. Bogus degrees of various educational qualifications were discovered in the offices of Axact and its CEO was rounded up and a case of fraud was registered against him in 2015. But as the TV channel became threatened with closure, countermoves were made to rescue it. In September 2016, a Sessions judge hearing its case suddenly decided to acquit the BOL CEO on all charges allowing him to go back to managing the channel. When the decision was challenged at the Islamabad High Court, the judge confessed to the acquittal after receiving a bribe of Rs. 5 million, according to press reports. It didn’t take him long however to take “instructions” and resile from his confession.
The Federal Investigation Authority probably didn’t realize the power behind BOL and kept on pursuing Axact seriously. Before the case could be revived, however, Zahid Jamil, FIA’s lead prosecutor, quit his job under “mysterious” circumstances. As reporter Umar Cheema put it in The News of Sept. 10, 2016, “A top investigator of FIA who collected forensic evidence against alleged frauds of Axact has been chased, intercepted and taken to unmarked locations for ‘counseling’ on the case several times.” Later, a hand-grenade was thrown at his house to firm up his resolve to stay away from the case. After him, three more prosecutors also mysteriously resigned and BOL kept on spewing its poison.
The unspoken direction about which way the media had to go was thus delivered. A majority of the channels and Urdu newspapers sided with “the institutions” and strengthened the hands of Imran Khan’s opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf as the next favored incumbent after the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz).