About the Geo-ISI episode

BY JAVED JABBAR| IN Media Practice | 22/05/2014
The complaint addressed by the Ministry of Defence against Geo TV to Pemra is as extreme and excessive as Geo's own live telecast of an unverified statement alleging the involvement of ISI and its DG in the attack on Hamid Mir.
A comment by JAVED JABBAR. PIX: Hamid Mir

The complaint addressed by the Ministry of Defence against Geo to Pemra is as extreme and excessive as Geo's own live telecast of an unverified statement alleging the involvement of ISI and its DG in the attack on Hamid Mir.

Pemra is ineligible to process the complaint in the absence of a full-time Chairman. It is an ironic coincidence that the complainant, the Ministry of Defence also does not have a full-time Minister because the individual in-charge is already the Minister for Water and Power.

But so many are working over-time, not just part-time or full-time, to compound the mess with excess. A fusillade of allegations, accusations, assertions, each way every day. Even as time passes and the intensity may subside, a halt to the hyperbole is overdue. In the silence of print, let us briefly reflect.

The Jang/Geo group's origins in the pre-Independence phase and over the past 66 years are marked by a significant contribution to Pakistan's freedom movement and to the growth of independent media and to freedom of expression. The group has vigorously advocated vital national causes to promote education, social justice and human rights and has exposed major instances of corruption and misgovernance.

At the same time, the group's policies, in some respects, also reflect imbalances and distortions. On occasion, a parochial approach, as in the Sindhi-Urdu language controversy in 1972. An equivocal, ambivalent lack of clarity of the group's own editorial convictions in projecting both conservative, holier-than-thou orthodoxy as well as fact and evidence-based rationality. A passion to be first-with-the-news polluted by infotainment and subjectivity. Intrusive advertising and commercialism at the expense of coherence and continuity. Permitting some of its persons and programmes to conduct subtle or explicit defamation and character assassination of individuals and institutions. Using a hysterical, high-pitched manner to stress gloom-and-doom. Occasionally intemperate criticism of the military. Gratuitous, almost sadistic portrayal of General Musharraf's present predicament. Advocacy of trade and better ties with India without corresponding focus on India's intransigence on issues both profound and petty eg. the blocking of Pakistani cricketers from IPL. Undue projection of Indian Bollywood content eg. By including news about releases of new Indian movies in main news bulletins, which creates misperceptions of the otherwise laudable aims of "Aman ki Asha". These blemishes are shared, wholly or in part, with some other media groups. But because the Jang/Geo group is the most dominant, it inevitably attracts more attention.

Yet the above flaws do not persuade this writer that the Jang/Geo group is disloyal to Pakistan as charged by the Ministry of Defence. From long inter-action with both its owners and its team for about forty five years, one is convinced that they are as committed to the security and well-being of our country as anyone else, civil or military. They sometimes do make wrong choices and bad decisions. But these are caused by what one believes are deficient judgments and choices, not by an absence of patriotism.

ISI has several exceptional capacities which serve our country's national security interests with extraordinary speed, precision and effectiveness. Overseas and within the country, ISI often helps to pre-empt threats by timely gathering of information to enable preventive action. It possesses, in certain areas, incisive analytical capability not always present in the civil sector. The Abbottabad-Osama bin Laden episode was a huge failure but even the Americans are unable to say that ISI facilitated the fugitive's audaciously clever hide-out.

Sometimes, even Mossad is taken by surprise!

Due to its very nature, the institution is unable to directly speak through the media ---- unlike the Jang/Geo group --- and is obliged to maintain secrecy, leave alone quietness or silence about its work. It is at a serious disadvantage in being vulnerable to gross mis-representation, aided fulsomely by Indian and Western media, political leaders and academia and by some of our very own .ISI has done relatively little to address this disadvantage of being amongst the most maligned institutions in the world. It should be more transparent on matters where it can afford to do so, without compromising security interests. This writer has also long urged, in print and in other media, Parliamentary oversight of this body.

ISI is certainly not clean as a whistle. There is well-grounded belief in, and wide-spread suspicion of covert interference in the country's internal political domain, and in other facets of internal civil affairs. These include support to extremist, even violent sectarian groups, intimidation of, and sometimes even alleged attacks on journalists , involvement , either directly or indirectly in making persons disappear from Balochistan . The agency's support to the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s and its alleged association with groups in that neighbouring country's current situation is part of foreign policy imperatives that requires separate attention elsewhere.

Yet ISI, at least in the opinion of this writer , is capable of far better professional judgement than to conduct what seems to be quite a ham-fisted, botched, inept attack on Hamid Mir that was bound to focus on ISI's alleged culpability in view of the targeted victim's prior apprehensions. The agency must surely be most upset at the frequency and certainty with which it is accused almost daily by Indian media of being responsible for even absurd incidents and hurt most of all, when sections of the country's own media join the chorus. Would it then want to add to its own already battered image with such a crude exercise, even if it was meant to be a warning? In any case, freedom of expression in Pakistan, notwithstanding the doom-sayers, is irreversible, having begun its current phase, ironically, during General Musharraf's tenure, and as a direct result of his military-led Government's policies. 

The pressure under which cable operators have suddenly, onwards of 23rd April 2014, shifted the position of Geo News in particular and other Geo channels from their normal, convenient sequencing obviously comes from official organizations, including police and intelligence agencies giving verbal instructions. The majority of TV households have sets that cannot accept signals from more than 70 channels. Many cable operators too have limits to the numbers they can distribute. Moving Geo, the unmistakably most highly viewed TV news channel to position number say, 60 or 65, or even further away from the prime early slots, is to effectively prevent the channel from reaching millions of its viewers. In this writer's own case, while we are fortunately able to receive about 80 channels, Geo News has been moved from no. 2 to no. 62! Aptly...or inaptly..?! ... PTV Global in English is now the new no. 2!

Despite Geo having reportedly addressed at least four urgent letters to Pemra in the past fourteen days asking for corrective action, neither the simple courtesy of a reply has been shown nor has any corrective action been taken by Pemra. This is unwarranted violation, with Pemra's connivance, of the media's right to access the people without hindrance. Regardless of the anger caused in the military and in other spheres by the original sin of Geo's live telecast of the allegation, all institutions and individuals should desist from covert actions to hurt and damage this media group. Let the law alone be fairly used to ensure justice for all, with optimal transparency and accountability.

With as many as three Justices of the Supreme Court conducting an inquiry into the attack on Hamid Mir one should refrain from speculation or further comment until the report is published. For the time being, both the protagonists should desist from further fulminations.

However, one wishes that some persons and TV channels would also exercise self-discipline until all the facts ...not always easy to ascertain... are established.

Some elements have also regrettably misrepresented a section of the report of the Media Commission appointed by the Supreme Court of Pakistan (Jan-Jun 2013) in which this writer served as Member with Justice (r) Nasir Aslam Zahid as its Chairman.

On pages 175-176 of the printed book- form version of this Report, the Commission reproduces an observation made before it by the then-Chairman PEMRA. This observation quoted him as having said that : “a couple of media houses are reported to have received large grants in the form of advertising contracts from overseas sources… it is also said that all, or part of this amount is received by an entity which is part of the media group and is used to sponsor non-advertising campaigns…”

When the Supreme Court of Pakistan was asked to take note of how this part of the Commission’s Report was/is being misrepresented to smear the Jang/Geo group, the then-Chairman PEMRA denied having made such an observation to the Commission. This writer was obliged to bring to the attention of the Supreme Court and to the public at large through a statement that the then-Chairman PEMRA did make such a claim and that his contention of not having said the same was untrue. Upon which the said official promptly withdrew the observation/allegation against the “unnamed”, (but named by others as the Geo group) and regretted having made the statement to the Commission.

It is unfortunate that some elements regularly continue to misrepresent the content of the Commission’s Report. At no point whatsoever does the Commission allege that the Jang/Geo group has secretly received funds from overseas or Indian sources. Nor does it record a suspicion that this group, or any other group is anti-Pakistan or disloyal to the country.

To remove misconceptions and clear the fog, the Commission’s Report does urge the Supreme Court to order forensic audit of the accounts of the advertising companies and media firms which are alleged by some to have received substantial benefits or disproportionate funds.

This writer supports, in principle, investigation by a fully constituted PEMRA and/or by the Council of Complaints of the complaint filed by the Ministry of Defence against the Jang/Geo group. The two entities are intrinsically different ie one is an invaluable, important State institution, the other is a precious private media group. In their respective fields, each deserves respect if they, in turn, render their roles with integrity and responsibility. Any investigation should include consultation with those citizens and media that have opinions on this subject. There is a dire need for new public legislation to define accountability through self-regulation. The Media Commission offers a number of Recommendations, including reform of Pemra. Most of these have received unprecedented bipartisan endorsement in the National Assembly Standing Committee on Information, Broadcasting & National Heritage. Several options for appropriate corrective action are available to deal with the complaint. Cancellation of the Geo TV licence would be an untenable extreme.

It would make the attempted cure worse than the ailment.

(The writer has served as Federal Information Minister and Senator. www.javedjabbar.com)

Reprinted from The News International, Pakistan (part of the Jang/ Geo media group) on May 14, 2014.

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