June Issue 2015
Too good to be true. That is what everyone in the journalism community should have thought when Bol, a new entrant to the media scene, started poaching the biggest names in the business. The salaries they were offering, at least at the very top, defied all financial logic. Bol was set up by tech firm Axact, a secretive organisation that appears to prefer litigation to transparency. Even before Bol was launched, rumours had been swirling about Axact and the nature of its work.
We now know a little more about what was happening behind the scenes.
Declan Walsh, the exiled Pakistan correspondent of The New York Times, published a bombshell story claiming Axact was the shadowy figure behind dozens of online ‘universities’ selling fake degrees to unsuspecting students, mostly in the US and the Middle East. The story claimed this venture was filling Axact’s coffers with millions of dollars.
The response from Axact was swift. It immediately went on the offensive, accusing Walsh of working on an anti-Pakistan agenda. While denying the accusations, the company tried to paint Walsh’s expulsion from Pakistan as proof of his inherent untrustworthiness. The official response from Axact said, “The story is authored by some reporter Declan Walsh of NYT who was expelled from Pakistan as persona non-grata by Pakistan’s Interior Ministry allegedly due to his involvement in damaging Pakistan’s national interests.”
The truth behind Walsh’s expulsion is a little murkier than that. He was forced to leave the country during the 2013 elections, when a caretaker government was in place. Arif Nizami, the editor of the newspaper Pakistan Today, was the caretaker information minister at the time and in a recent column he revealed that the order for his expulsion came from the military and the interior ministry acted only as a rubber stamp for this order. Walsh had written critically about the military, both for its activities in Balochistan and the ‘war on terror’ and it is believed, with some justification, that he got into trouble because of this.
Axact CEO Shoaib Sheikh did not respond to an email request for an interview but has appeared on TV channels continuing to plead innocence and casting aspersions on Walsh. Amir Zia, the editor of the English-language newspaper Bol is planning to launch, echoed the organisation’s view on Walsh. He said, “Everyone knows Declan Walsh is a controversial figure. The way he operated in Pakistan everyone knows. And the way he was ousted from the country, again everyone knows.”
The other attack on the credibility of the story is even more fanciful. The official response from Axact claimed that the Express Media Group had the story published into trash its rival. The Express Media Group does publish the international edition of with its English-language newspaper, The Express Tribune. However, operating a franchise does not give it any control over what is published in . In fact, in the past has criticised for leaving blank spaces in places of stories that may have offended religious or nationalistic tendencies in Pakistan.The other attack on the credibility of the story is even more fanciful. The official response from Axact claimed that the Express Media Group had the story published in The New York Times to trash its rival. The Express Media Group does publish the international edition of The New York Times with its English-language newspaper, The Express Tribune. However, operating a franchise does not give it any control over what is published in The New York Times. In fact, in the past The New York Times has criticised Express for leaving blank spaces in places of stories that may have offended religious or nationalistic tendencies in Pakistan.
However, what is undeniable is that media groups have responded to Axact’s woes with barely-restrained glee. News bulletins are teeming with stories about the group, as if little else is happening in the country. In the cutthroat world of Pakistani media, Bol was seen as a legitimate threat with its seemingly endless pockets. Zia believes that the media groups, in conjunction with the government, went after Axact. He said, “There is a grand conspiracy which has been hashed by some media tycoons along with some government officials.”
Even if talk of a conspiracy is true, that does not in itself exonerate Axact from the fake degree charges. The FIA launched an immediate investigation into Axact and raided its offices. Zia called the raids “illegal” and it is true that the FIA leapt into action very quickly and did so without a warrant.
But the results of the FIA investigation do not look good for Axact. Images were releasedshowing fake degrees strewn all over their offices. The Axact line now is that the company may have been designing the degrees for companies they work for but they hadn’t set up the shell universities themselves.
Axact’s woes do not end there. Sheikh has been accused of paying mere rupees in taxes, which does not line up with the finances of his company. The Khaleej Times went to the address where Axact was supposed to have an office in Dubai and found only a chair and a desk in a small room. Axact also isn’t on the State Bank of Pakistan’s list of software-exporting companies and neither is it registered with the tech industry association P@SHA.
Were it not for Bol, Axact likely would not have endured the scrutiny it is now going through. And the future of Bol looks bleak. The channel was meant to launch on the first day of Ramazan but Pemra has now blocked it from launching till the investigation is complete. Most of the channel’s top stars — Azhar Abbas, Kamran Khan, Nusrat Javed, Asma Shirazi, Wajahat Khan, Iftikhar Ahmed — tendered their resignations publicly via Twitter. Whether they did so out of principles or to jump from a sinking ship, their actions show the world of hurt Bol is in. The company has tried to differentiate between Axact and Bol but since both are owned by the same parent, this is a distinction without a difference.
Axact — and by extension Bol — may have been brought down by its own criminality. It may have been the victim of a concerted effort by the established media to throttle an upstart at birth. It may have been a combination of the two. But the end result is the same. Bol, it turns out, was too good to be true.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s June 2015 issue.
Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.