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Last Updated: Friday, 29 June 2007, 16:38 GMT 17:38 UK
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.

Journalists protest against press restrictions in Pakistan, 5 June 2007
Journalists have been fighting for their freedom in recent months

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?"

The Fourth Estate in Pakistan is deeply penetrated by the Fifth Column

"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.

'Timid journalists'

Successive civilian and military governments have used and abused these powers with equal relish. Only, the intelligence agencies act more ruthlessly during military regimes.

Pakistani media have always thrived on the professionalism and dedication of a few journalists

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.

President Musharraf
Gen Musharraf faces an increasingly hostile media

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.

'Offensive claim'

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.

If you would like to comment on this column please use the form below.

I would strongly need to disagree to the claim on Indian journalism by Masud Alam. There have been small control exercised by the Government but apart from that they have complete freedom. I would advise Masud to do a deeper research into it. He could easily go into Websites like TimesofIndia, Hindu or Indiatimes and would find quite a few article lambasting the establishment...

I think the bureau chief of a French news group was just not wanting to base it in India due to the fact that there are not too many things to report against. However, in Pakistan the challenging environment is something which is a understatement due to lack of freedom for Pakistan journalism and hence gave them opportunity to sell more unsecored information
Janak Shah, Leeds, UK

The role of secret services in media is present in many countries, including developed countries. Its the right of state to take precautionary measures but use of threat and ugly tactics by government should be condemned. It would be unfair not to give credit to Musharraf government for encouraging the media particularly electronic media. But now as media started to rightly point out severe mistakes, the general couldn't help to control the dictator in him to take unjustified actions.
Ahmad, Essen, Germany

Things are not that bad dude! Every government tries to control (or influence) the media in one way or the other; it is not an invention of Pakistani agencies. In fact, our media has played a great role in the recent political/judicial crisis in such a way that the media of many "free" and "democratic" nations would be put to shame! Stop being so pessimistic about the circumstances. Do what the rest of the media is doing - Useful work!
Umer Iqbal, Dubai

Being from India who follows numerous Indian publications regularly, I find it a little funny that some journalists feel publications in India are all about the booming economy and "Bollywood taking over the world" (I am yet to read an article in any newspaper claiming the latter really!). These journalists simply have no idea about the publications in India. Just log on to the Indian Express news website and see for yourself. Whether in the form of "sting" operations to expose the corrupt or inforation about the developments in the region/world, the Indian news media definitely has got plenty of dimensions to it.
LD, London

"The Fourth Estate in Pakistan is deeply penetrated by the Fifth Column. These spies and fake journalists are however only the foot soldiers". Forgive me. But I would have thought you were refering to the UK, since many journalists here are agents of the MI5. Indeed BBC is acknowleged as the main foundation for propagating the British government agenda. This agenda hasn't just appeared. The BBC continues to 'adjust' its news and journalism based on the prevailing foreign policy of the day. Further you provide a token comments facility. As long as the readers views are on the same path as yours then it is OK to publish their views. You are a joke for an organisation. As long as you discriminate and have selective morality, then you will remain a mistrusted organisation.
Mohammad Tanweer, London

Hi, Comparison of journalism in India and Pakistan is absolutely true. Though an Indian by birth, I prefer reading Pakistan newspapers for South Asian news as they are lively, interrogative and the articles are written with considerable research. Prakash Rastogi
Prakash Rastogi, Toronto, Canada

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 thruout 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 pak, 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. Best regards, Engr Arshad Ali Khan, UMMAA-Broadcasting, Rolla, Missouri-65401, USA
Engr Arshad Ali Khan, Rolla, Missouri, USA

Your article is a bit dated; the government has repealed the ordinance since. Moreover, Pakistani press has no ethics and lacks the journalistic integrity practised in the West. Television channels will go to any extreme in lieu of ratings. For example, during the Karachi violence, cameramen focused on people bleeding to death taking their last breath and gasping for air. The image was sickening and not appropriate. During the earthquake coverage, Hamid Mir of GEO, lifted the hand of a dead child to demonstrate to viewers that the child had died. Desecration of the deceased for impact is again sickening? Pakistan Broadcaster Association (PBA), a body of all private television channels, is now working on a "code of ethics" to prevent such gross violations of common decency during television coverage. However, this only happened after the government took action when repeated warnings from the regulatory body were ignored.
Salman Shah, Karachi, Pakistan

An excellent assesment of the situation. I would have found it closer to the facts on the ground if greater stress had been placed on threat to life and limb during disturbed times like the present days, especially when the ruling Army establishment finds itself on cross purposes with the general public and is in danger of being over-thrown.
Qudrat-ullah- Khan, Toronto, Canada

While India has a secular and democratic constitution, Pakistan is a state that proclaims total allegiance to a single religion and is ruled by a military dictator. How can you compare the attitudes of journalists working in these two vastly different governance scenarios? Journalists in India are secretly taping ministers taking bribes, hardly "a cautious and almost respectful stance towards the authority and image of the state". Indeed, the Pakistani journalists are "bold and vociferous to the point of defying authority" because they are defying authority simply by exerting their basic right to report on political events. The struggle in Pakistan is at a much more basic level, and it is for the right to live and function as a free human being.
Somnath Mukhopadhyay, Dundee, Scotland, UK

Wow, I for one never expected an article from BBC to paint Pakistani media in such a positive light. The writer correctly points out that Pakistani print and now electronic media has been responsible for changing the very way Pakistanis look at their government. We, the people of Pakistan, couldn't possibly have found the courage to stand against injustice and fascist trends of our military and certain civilian rulers had it not been for the media. They still have a long way to go, in order to truly ascertain their position in the society and I wish them luck. Make us proud.
Muhammad Saad, Lahore, Pakistan

I am an international journalist working in Pakistan at the moment, I happen to fly out in a matter of the next few hours. It made pleasent reading, this article, but I must stress on a few things which exist in Pakistan's journalistic circles. I lived here for many years before I moved abroad, 2 weeks ago I came back to film a documentary for an international news channel, I was made to draw out a $200,000 insurance plan to visit the country of my birth for a mere two weeks - and that is because I am an international journalist - one can only imagine and empathise with local journalists, who have to work in a country with a worsening security situation. The security/intelligence agencies are everywhere, its a shame, I have never before been followed around like this, my phone (I feel) is clearly being tapped, and according to local journalists, the security agencies also have the ability to read my emails. There is an overwhelming sense of insecurity here, local journalists have well adapted to the situation after years of spent anxiety and paranoia. However, with the sudden broadcast media boom in the country, a demand for broadcasters and journalists has arisen, which has seen people from newspaper or elsewhere jump the bandwagon. Quality of many news channels remains poor and underdeveloped, with little sense of journalistic responsibility. It would be accurate to say that in many instances news channels have become lucrative businesses with a stunted public service agenda.
Sal, Karachi, Pakistan

Whatever views you may have regarding the Musharraf regime in Pakistan since 1999, there is no doubt that the level of debate (good and bad) in the electronic media (mainly private TV) channels was never posssible in time of the previous governments. Even the written press seems to have become more emboldened by the "freedom" of the TV channels and regularly challenges of the "establishment" view. However, the latest crisis facing the Musharraf govenment seems to have its roots in petty provincial/ethnic grudges that plague Pakistan due to Musharraf not hailing from the largest province of Pakistan rather then any serious problem with the Musharraf's government (spooks et all).
Tashfin, Morden UK

I always liked Mr Masud Alam and his views but I think this time he dropped the ball on his analysis. Does he really believe there are no government agents among real journalist in American, British and other international media? Its normal and that is how it should be for national security of their respective countries. At least this special branch man who never claimed to be an journalist, matter of fact he did identify himself not being journalist and stating him being from Special Branch so never a fake journalist. Would Mr Alam be able to ask same question to any American or British agent? I don't think so. In case Mr Alam does not know there is "self" censorship on American and British media, you would never see dead soldiers body bags coming from Iraq or Afghanistan so why it should not be applied in Pakistan for their national interest?
Syed Hussain, Virginia, USA

Masud Alam states that while the press in Pakistan is supressed by the military, the press in India is by itself respectful of authority and not as bold as the Pakistani press. That must be his Pakistani origins talking, or his fear of Pakistan's ISI. If that were the case, a sting operation by the Indian press like Tehelka could not have happened. The press in India has less fear than, say, the Washington Post!
Arun Patel, San Jose, USA

I am on a visit to Pakistan after 4 years from Boston, USA. As a Pakistani citizen, I am ashamed to say that Pakistani media is unethical, lacking any code of conduct and at times utterly biased and tunnel visioned. Talking about media freedom, I think it is more free than the media in the West because it crosses on limits of national interest and patriotism. Talking about journalists, I think every Tom, Dick and Harry boasts to be a journalist! I think President Musharraf gave too much freedom to the media too soon. The Pakistani media represents the Pakistani society - delinquent.
Qureshi, Karachi (Pakistan)

It has been rightly noted by Masud that the print media is and has been the most independent and critical of the government (for the right reasons). I remember as a young boy during the Zia regime when the TV & Radio played to the tunes of the regime (this continues todate as far as the state-owned entities are concerned)it was the print media that was bold enough to step into no-go areas. Kudos to the print media. I, however, do differ a bit regarding the mushrooming electronic media. It is true that access to information is still elusive the very presence of a large number of private electronic media entities have atleast given a semblance of "freedom of speech". I endorse the concluding remarks. It will be a while before access to information, as granted in the constitution becomes a reality. Long way to go.
Mirza Asad Baig, Copenhagen, Denmark

I find it really interesting that the writer compares press in Pakistan with that in India. The French journalist is in Pakistan not to enjoy journalistic freedom but because that's where the juicy stories are, as they would be in any disaster zone. The Indian press has always been a potent force of change, with a history of being instrumental in bringing down governments and putting politicians in the dock. Having said that, the fact that stories of the Indian economic boom and Bollywood don't make good press any more, is excellent news for India.
Rajesh Prakash, New York, USA

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