Sultan M Hali
PAKISTANI media, which was bound in shackles, broke free in 2002, ironically under a military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf. Lifting the lid of censorship and permitting the launch of private TV and FM Radio channels brought in a whiff of fresh air but in the absence of formal regulatory bodies, the media had a free for all letting off its steam. PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) was created, but not allowed to impose strict regulations. General Pervez Musharraf himself suffered at the hands of the free media, during his show down with then Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and the Lal Masjid gory episode. Subsequent political regimes too found the going difficult in facing onslaught from the free media, which was bent upon exposing corruption and misdoings of the govt as well as state and private agencies. With libel laws still lacking enforcement, the media became all powerful.
PEMRA, slowly and gradually gained ground and acquired teeth to regulate the electronic media, while the empire found its own means to strike back. Pakistan’s now vibrant media landscape; among the most dynamic in South Asia, started feeling direct and indirect pressures by political stakeholders, business magnates and state agencies to tow the line. One tool widely used by the government is to cut off ‘unfriendly’ media from governmental advertising, invitation to accompany the Prime Minister on foreign visits and attend important briefings. Using draconian laws the government has also tried to ban or officially silence popular television channels. PEMRA has been used to gag the broadcast media by either suspending licenses or by simply threatening to do so. The second form of exerting influence was attempting to bribe TV Channel owners and talk show anchors. Where such methods failed, powerful groups tried to establish their own TV Channels, from where they could influence the thoughts and minds of the viewers in an Orwellian manner.
Non-state actors, foreign governments, intelligence agencies and think tanks tried to use Pakistan’s vivacious media to launch their own propaganda campaigns. One form of propaganda was to influence the culture of Pakistan, lead the youth astray in rejecting Pakistan’s rich traditional bonds and adopt alien thoughts, practices, norms and mores. India’s current Minister for External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, the daughter of an RSS operative, who hailed from Dharampura in Lahore, had served as Minister for Information and Broadcasting from September 2000 until January 2003. Sushma had made an ominous threat that instead of invading Pakistan, India would permeate into the hearts and minds of Pakistani youth; influence them to accept Hindu culture and traditions; brainwashing them into subjugation of India. Her most notable decision during this period was to declare film production as an industry, which made the Indian film industry eligible for bank finance. Prior to this, the film industry was heavily financed by the underworld on high rate of interest. Indian movies and dramas ingressed into Pakistani society and the “free and open” Pakistani electronic media started airing Indian movies, dramas, quiz shows and even children’s programs. The result was deadly till PEMRA stepped in to stem the rot.
Meanwhile, the Occident, which had jumped into the fray, found an easy medium, the FM radio. Despite Pakistan’s continuous sincerity and leaning on US and the West, its efforts and sacrifices in combating terror, went in vain, because Pakistan’s western allies embarked upon fabricating negative themes to influence the audience. The objective was to create a wedge between the army and the public and subsequently to pitch them against each other. The trend to develop themes and narratives to change perceptions around the world by the Western media is in vogue since Gulf War to legalize its invasion of Iraq. However, in case of Pakistan, the Occidental methodology changed. Instead of machinating through direct propaganda campaigning, the modus operandi adopted was to target Pakistan to exploit influential people who could easily be bribed and ultimately utilized in promoting Western culture in Pakistan. The trend of developing blogs, websites and articles in the social media, the medium of High Powered Radio Transmitters from different countries towing Western policies and themes started targeting Pakistan. The power of clandestine FM Radio channels in brainwashing a gullible audience can be amply demonstrated with the trend set by Mullah Fazlullah, the current head of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), presently hiding in Afghanistan. In 2006, he was preaching “jihad” and transmitting broadcasts of his sermons on an illegal local mobile FM radio channel, instigating common people to join his “jihad” and like sheep the susceptible audience followed him in wreaking havoc in Swat Valley till the Army took action.
Another source of western propaganda, which has emerged is Mashaal Radio, which is being broadcast from Kuwait city, Udon Thami (Thailand) and Bhabbaya (Abu Dhabi) on high powered frequencies including Khost (Afghanistan) to target Pakistan based Pashtun community of KPK (FATA) and Balochistan and instill rebellious thoughts. The agenda is to portray Pakistan as epicenter of terrorism and safe haven for Taliban fighters. Mashaal Radio purports to create a void between civilian and military leadership in Pakistan to generate the element of political uncertainty and distrust among public about the leadership’s relations with military influencing the minds of the people. Broadcast are mainly in Pashto and little in Urdu and English languages. PEMRA needs to take cognizance of this vicious anti Pakistan propaganda posthaste.
—The writer is retired PAF Group Captain and a TV talk show host.
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Sultan M Hali