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The end of dissent

April 27, 2014

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AS with Saleem Shahzad, the honest and the unflinching can guess what happened to Hamid.

As with Saleem Shahzad, the honest and the unflinching will tell you that if they think they made you or own you, they do not forgive betrayal — ever.

As with Saleem Shahzad, the honest and the unflinching can predict how this will eventually be spun: a necessary aberration; an exception, not the rule; private business.

But this isn’t just about Hamid. Nor is it — unless you’re chronically delusional or in self-interested denial — about one photo, one name and one accusation in the wake of an attack.

So, what is this unprecedented, scary and open warfare all about?

First, forget what the protagonists are claiming. All are dissembling. Geo/Jang, Geo’s rivals, the ISI — at best they’re telling us a sliver of the story, the respective slivers that make each of them look righteous and rightly aggrieved.

Also, a digression is necessary. When Musharraf unleashed the electronic media, it wasn’t exactly for reasons of altruism or the public good. It was to copy the Indian model.

Kargil helped demonstrate the possibilities of a nascent electronic media: Indian nationalism whipped up credibly and pervasively by privately owned news channels propagating urban, middle-class values. It was beyond anything the stodgy, state-run Doordashan — or PTV — could ever have dreamed of.

There was an added impetus for the army here: in the pre-cable era of satellite TV and dish antennae, the perceived Indian propaganda was flowing directly into Pakistani homes unhindered.

Neither, then, could the enemy’s propaganda be fully kept out nor were its effects on the enemy population anything short of riveting — so why not replicate the model in Pakistan?

But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Again, back to Musharraf: once sold on the idea, he wasn’t interested in limiting its spread. Anyone who wanted a channel could have one. And Musharraf didn’t care too much about what was said on air or what the channels got up to.

By the time Musharraf was gone, the channels had started to figure out the power they had. And none more so than Geo, which played the game as though it had invented it.

Eventually, it became obvious that a course correction would be sought. Which brings us to the present. This — this war — is about control.

It is about narrative and who owns it. It is about framing issues, especially India, and who gets to call the shots. It is about re-establishing the original order and reinforcing hierarchies. To the media: make your money, do your thing, but play by the rules — our rules.

Geo/Jang’s sins are legion — and those are just the ones we know about. The group may have once had a journalistic core, but it’s long since been eclipsed by influence peddling and agenda setting — and making eye-watering sums while doing so.

What’s playing out now though isn’t about justifiable punishment or long-delayed comeuppance. It’s about fixing the errant and sending a message.

Geo’s sin, as far its now-public tormenters are concerned, is two-fold. First, it grew too big. On its own, that was not a deal breaker. The problem really began when Geo got into the narrative game, and in particular the narrative on India.

Geo isn’t just ratings and eyeballs; it’s built its way to veritable institution status. If Geo says or does something, few can afford to ignore it. And, crucially, Geo is defiant enough and arrogant enough to get up to mischief.

Mischief like thinking it can set the agenda itself. Mischief like setting an agenda contrary to that of the army’s. Mischief like trying to shift public perceptions on India.

Sure, there is also much money to be made. If the relentless allegations of covert pay-offs and underwriting of special campaigns turn out to be true, it would hardly be surprising.

Money though isn’t the real quarrel here, influence is. Who has it, how they use it and to what end. And that’s a market the permanent establishment will not countenance losing their monopoly over.

But why have ARY, Express and the rest of the execrable lot waded in? Because the biggest and baddest media beast in the land is being hunted.

It may not get taken down immediately or next year or even the year after. But pick sides now and a double bonanza is to be had.

Once the king is dead, the spoils can be shared anew. The media pie, covert and overt, and Geo’s share of it is worth, quite literally, billions. And for those with other businesses to protect, the boys can make the business of doing business easy — and that much more lucrative.

Sympathise with Geo or feel contempt for them, that isn’t really the issue here. The issue is this: the ISI has bared its teeth and definitively showed all of us what’s on its mind.

There will be one narrative. There will be obeisance. And where there is defiance, the first casualties will be the former minions who have forgotten who the boss is.

And that’s why the honest and the unflinching are also sick to their stomachs. Because they can see this for what it is.

This isn’t the old order crumbling or the establishment beast in its last desperate throes. This is confidence. This is purposeful. This is menacing. And this may only be the beginning. n

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com

Twitter: @cyalm