Puppet strings – by Nadeem F. Paracha


The emergence of a taped conversation, allegedly between famous TV anchor and journalist, Hamid Mir, and a member of what is called the ‘Punjabi Taliban,’ has created great furor – especially within the journalistic community in Pakistan.

In the the conversation, a man recognised by some as Mir, makes derogatory remarks against the Ahmadiyya sect and insistently alludes that Khalid Khawaja – the controversial former ISI man who was kidnapped and murdered by an group that is believed to have ties to the Punjabi Taliban – was a CIA agent and close to the Ahmadiyya sect.

He blames Khawaja for the death of Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) cleric, Ghazi Rashid, who was killed in the military action against armed men holed up in the volatile mosque in 2007. He tells the Punjabi Taliban that it was on Khawaja’s insistence that Ghazi continued to fight from within the besieged mosque, but was then abandoned by him.

Khawaja, who was supposedly in the custody of the Punjabi Taliban at the time of the conversation, was later found murdered by his captors who accused him of being a CIA agent and responsible for Ghazi’s death. These are the two main points that the conversing journalist makes while talking to the Punjabi Taliban member in the leaked tape.

Leading members of the liberal intelligentsia have frequently been raising concern and alarms against certain prominent figures in the local print and electronic media, blaming them of overtly sympathising and at times glorifying the violent antics of assorted sectarian and Islamist organisations.

People like Hamid Mir, Dr. Shahid Masood, Aamir Liaqat and Ansar Abbasi (all belonging to a large media group in Pakistan), have come under intense scrutiny by their detractors for not only ‘angling’ their stories and rhetoric in favour of extremist organisations, but also constantly undermining the current democratic set-up in Islamabad.

Ironically though, whereas the liberal sections of the media have not gone beyond labeling these men as Taliban sympathisers, it is their opponents within the large net of pro-Taliban actors in the media and the intelligence agencies who are said to be behind leakages such as the taped conversation mentioned above.

According to well-known columnist and author, Ayesha Siddiqa, “the conversation should not surprise people as Hamid Mir has old links with the Islamists and the intelligence agencies.” In an article she adds that there is not a single journalist, especially on the electronic media, who comments on national security and is not fed by the military or one of its many intelligence agencies.

Author of the acclaimed book, Military Inc., Siddiqa says that at present there are three opposing groups within the military and its agencies. One is pro-West, one is pro-Taliban, and the third is pro-China. All three are always at loggerheads. This also means that while each one of these groups has journalists planted in newspapers and TV channels, they use their plants to cancel out the reputation and influence of those belonging to the opposing groups.

But there is nothing new about this. The agencies have always had personnel on their payrolls operating as reporters, anchors, and ‘analysts’ ever since the Ayub Khan dictatorship in the 1960s. Respected journalist and author, late Zamir Niazi, in his book, The Web of Censorship, suggests that the agencies recruited a number of ‘journalists’ during the Ayub dictatorship, specifically to check leftist sentiments that were all the rage among journalists at the time.

Then during the Z.A. Bhutto regime, Niazi hints that the populist government and the conservative ‘establishment’ fought a battle of ideas through paid journalists. But the phenomenon of agency-backed journalists upholding the military establishment’s agenda and ideology in the press really came to the fore during the Ziaul Haq dictatorship in the 1980s.

As left-leaning journalists were forced to exit newspapers during the Zia dictatorship, the corridors of these newspaper offices were suddenly stormed by large groups of pro-establishment personnel, mainly consisting of anti-Bhutto journalists and pro-Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) men.

With the role of the ISI and other intelligence agencies expanding due to Pakistan’s direct involvement in the so-called ‘anti-Soviet Afghan jihad,’ many of these journalists were brought under the wings of various agencies, triggering a trend that still disfigures prominent sections of mainstream Pakistani media. What’s more, between early and late 1980s, the agencies were also able to plant men in the administration and finance departments of various mainstream media groups.

I got first-hand experience of this in 1993 when I joined a newspaper of a large media group; my appointment letter was constantly delayed, in spite of the editor asking the head of finance to release it. The head then bypassed the editor and went straight to the publisher, claiming that I should not be hired because I was a ‘communist’ who’d had links with the KGB (as a student) in the 1980s! As it turned out, this man was an active member of the JI, and also said to be close to a pro-jihad agency.

Crowded at the top

By the 1990s, most media groups had become a startling reflection of the tense sectarian, ethnic and ideologically fractured society that Zia’s disastrous regime and policies had left behind.

The media group I was a part of (for 10 years), was teeming with various lobbies, fighting out a cold war against one another. There were the usual high-profile agency-backed journalists who (as Siddiqa rightly suggests) were/are the ones who always manage to get the best scoops; then there was a large pro-JI lobby (whose mission, it seemed, revolved entirely around getting those they deemed to be ‘leftist’ or ‘liberal’ chucked out from the organisation); there was also a pro-MQM lobby who made sure that MQM received as much positive press as possible; and a ‘liberal’ lobby made up of assorted progressives. But more worryingly, the 1990s also saw the entry of ‘journalists’ planted or having sympathies with radical Sunni sectarian organisations such as the Sipah Sahaba.

As the agencies again became active, this time to sideline any democratically elected government that they saw as a danger to their on-going post-Zia maneuvers in the field of jihad (in Pakistan, Kashmir, and Afghanistan), a number of fresh recruits were instilled in newspapers, so much so, that opposing agencies (all with right-wing Islamist agendas, but differing on sectarian and policy grounds), now began drafting ‘journalists’ to put forward their particular version of pro-jihad ideology and interests. The result was infighting in the country’s intelligence gathering and security apparatus as one agency tried to undermine the other in their quest for more funds and political influence.

An attack in 1992 on a prominent journalist (famous for scoring a number of scoops and presently a famous TV anchor) was a stark reflection of this. The journalist, whom many believed was being fed stories by an agency, was claimed to have been attacked by the supporters of an opposing agency.

Such was the talk at the time, heralding the laying down of a whole new ball game in the intrigue-filled world of mainstream journalism in Pakistan. And this new ball game really got going when (during the Musharraf dictatorship) private TV channels were allowed to mushroom. This is the phenomenon that many within the media blame for triggering the on-going ‘anti-democracy’ and ‘pro-Taliban’ narrative one comes across on almost all major TV news channels. Opposing agency men were said to have come together during the Musharraf dictatorship to counter (through their ‘media contacts’) agency people who were supporting Musharraf’s (albeit half-baked) operation against extremist organisations.

Some political commentators point at the electronic media’s role during the Lal Masjid operation and the Lawyers’ Movement as examples in this respect. They believe whereas some TV anchors and reporters blindly lapped up ‘exaggerated figures’ and scenarios that they were fed to them by agency men opposing the pro-Musharraf organs, the game got even bigger when the same anti-Musharraf agencies ‘facilitated’ some political parties to invest heavily in the Lawyers’ Movement.

Though almost all mainstream parties took part in the landmark movement, however, the PPP and some small leftist parties blamed the PMLN and JI of mutating the movement’s orientation towards the rightist sides of the ideological divide, especially when pictures of activists carrying pro-Taliban and pro-Osama placards at the lawyers’ rallies started appearing in (mainly English) newspapers.

Observers believe that if the journalists belonging to the so-called pro-Musharraf factions of the agencies felt themselves being bogged down by those with alleged links to the more pro-jihad factions, the pro-Musharraf strains in the agencies put men like Zaid Hamid on TV – a manufactured pro-Musharraf demagogue originally placed to distract the people from events such as the Lawyers Movement.

Whose line is it, anyway?

Whereas today when the agencies (with the pragmatic support of bosses of some large media outlets) have successfully sidelined whatever there is left of any liberal, secular or leftist thought in the mainstream electronic media, it seems the channels are now overflowing with right-wing media men, many with clear links in the agencies.

But it’s not been a unanimous takeover. Simply because of the mentioned infighting between various groups within the agencies. For example, on surface, it should sound strange and contradictory if one right-wing media personality attacks another, as was the case when Zaid Hamid publicly accused Hamid Mir of being a CIA agent.

But this can easily be explained if one dwells deeper into the increasingly overlapping and complex maneuvers of the agencies. As a fellow columnist recently noted, in a matter of merely a month, two leading media personalities have been exposed in the most dramatic manner. He claimed that Zaid Hamid had dubious relations with a particular faction of the agencies, but was brought down when another faction decided to strike by bringing into play Zaid’s controversial past with a cult-like Islamic group which some puritanical Islamic organisations consider was blasphemous in its beliefs.

Another fellow journalist thinks that the ‘Mir tapes’ were leaked by a different faction of the ISI or IB. A faction perhaps opposed to the faction that Mir is alleged to have had links with.

The most interesting thing is that whereas attempts by the liberal media personnel to castigate right-wing and contentious TV personalities have not gone beyond protest columns and editorials, it has been such personalities’ fellow rightist journeymen who have been out to orchestrate their downfall.

Zaid Hamid called Hamid Mir a CIA agent, but it was Zaid who got his animated TV slots canceled when a sectarian Sunni organisation threatened to attack the channels that so enthusiastically ran the hate-monger’s much watched shows. On the other hand, Mir laughed off Zaid’s accusations but not before (unwittingly or otherwise) providing a platform on his own show for some politicians to make a meal out of another rightist TV anchor, Shahid Masood, only to supposedly have his own conversation with the Punjabi Taliban ‘leaked.’

Much more is being ‘leaked’ (more frequently than ever) to various websites. Recently, a website also put up a list of the outstanding dues that major media groups still owe in taxes to the government. Also under scrutiny are the ideological orientations and ‘links’ of journalists such as Ansar Abbasi, Shaheen Sehbai, and Amer Mateen.

Hamid Mir has denounced the taped conversation as fake. So has the media group he works for. But surprisingly, instead of investigating the level of involvement some journalists clearly have with extremist groups and intelligence agencies, all the organs of the said media organisation have gone into overdrive in attacking some of their contemporary media outlets, the government, and ‘liberal journalists’ of instigating a ‘conspiracy against free media.’

It is true that many of this media group’s ‘attackers’ have no respect for a free media. But by suggesting that the free-for-all mudslinging and dangerous angling that some of its anchors openly exhibit is akin to the group’s love of democracy and freedom of the media is really a self-defeating delusion, if not a big black joke.


Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com.

Courtesy: http://blog.dawn.com/2010/05/19/puppet-strings/

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