TORONTO: Though Pakistan’s military intelligence agencies have crept like a cancer into every social entity from bureaucrats, lawyers, teachers, doctors and traders, it’s media and politics that they have an overwhelming presence and a visible profile.

Today it is widely believed that they have control over almost all the politicians sitting in national assembly, provincial assemblies and senate on both sides of the aisle. It’s a known fact that almost all the elections in Pakistan including those that were held under the military governments and civilian governments were no more than hand-picked selections by the ISI where in front of world the ballots are counted but the lists of successful candidates are compiled at the ISI offices. They not only pick the government they pick the opposition as well.

The making and breaking of electoral alliances and later coalition governments are all done by the military agencies in a bid to assemble a bunch of good boys who are ‘patriotic and staunch followers of Pakistan and Islamic ideology.’ The firebrand military supporters among these bunch are given plum government portfolios. The military’s meddling in politics is such an old and established practice that now generals once they retire, publicly admit it and they have done so on many occasion in front of courts (Operation midnight jackal, former army chief Aslam Beg’s testimony in front of chief justice of Pakistan, ISI chief general Hameed Gul’s testimony, General Asad Durrani’s interviews and Asghar Khan case provide proof of this.)

Now back to the media story. In terms of penetration, manipulation and control, the media model is no different than the political model. In 2002, when the Pakistani media started to expand by the ISPR (Inter Services Public Relations) so did the ISPR and by the year 2014, the military workforce that managed media was equivalent of an army corps run by a lieutenant general.

As news channels mushroomed, the military media wing hurriedly matched the pace and first of all stuffed all those journalists who were already on their rota were given top jobs without caring about the quality and capacity of these so called journalists. Since there was nothing of quality and excellence in the inventory, so whatever was available, was stuffed into the newsrooms and studios of the channels.

To establish credibility of this ideological sweep, the stars were made and carved out from cheap wood. It became a thumb rule that the only concern was ‘deviation from the national narrative’ (explained in first part), as long as the news directors and talk show hosts are following that, it doesn’t matter at all if what is being said or shown has anything to do with standards or facts. And this professional sloppiness quickly became ridiculous mockery of professional standards when every conceivable intelligence agency from Special Branch of police to ISI recruited and transferred their personnel in the media industry.

These new reporters and news directors were amateurs and struggled even to write Urdu. One of the star anchors of the Pakistan media who works for a major TV channel from a C grade vernacular daily and turned overnight into a star by giving him access to those who mattered. Needless to say, there is no educational bar on who gets to be a journalist and talk show host. The only thing one needs is security clearance issued by the civil and military intelligence agencies.

While working with Khaleej Times in Dubai, I once got a call from the ‘visa consulor’ of Pakistan consulate when I was on my way to interview Benazir Bhutto who was living in exile there. He wanted me to ask BB about her alleged Iranian boyfriend who that official thought was ‘dating’ the former prime minister. I refused but I was told bluntly that since other Pakistani reporters do it so I’ll have to oblige in the national interest. I refused again and turned off the phone but then I had a tough time saving my job.

When I returned to Pakistan in 2003, I joined a TV production house in Islamabad and at that time I knew little about the scope and extent of penetration of the media by the intelligence agencies. But they were so many and hence very visible. Every media outlet was full to the brim by these operatives and the few and handful journalists that worked in that environment were ‘like-minded’. The media production house hosted a nine-part series for an English mainstream channel that had only supervisory oversight on the program, with the topics for debate and the guests being decided by the production house. During the first few episodes I noticed that whatever guests and topics we used to decide, were changed at the last moment. And by the third episode I was told that only those guests would be allowed who have security clearance from the ISI.

I was astounded and bewildered by the extent and amount of financial corruption of some on the big channels I worked for. Most of the so-called reporters, cameramen and technical staff were interested in going to only those events which were ‘paid.’ And corruption was systemic and organised. If it was a normal press conference or a political rally or the seminar, there was a fixed amount for various run-times. An OC/Sot had different rate, OC/Sot/PTC fetched more money and simple voice over had different rate. Even the tickers were sold. The cuts, perks and renumerations all depended on one’s influence with the directors who often were in league with reporters and cameramen.

Given that corruption is accepted as a kind of way of life in South Asia but the brazen nature of it and the way it is done in Pakistani media houses is beyond comparison.

(Part One: The-Army-and-the-Media-in-Pakistan)

(Mohammed Rizwan is a Pakistani journalist based in Toronto, Canada)