May Issue 2014

By | Q & A | Published 5 years ago

There has been unprecedented criticism of Geo for its coverage of the attack on Hamid Mir — more specifically, holding the DG ISI Zaheer-ul-Islam responsible and flashing his picture onscreen for eight hours, following the attack. Many accuse Geo of playing judge, jury and executioner, all in one.

We have clarified several times that it was not Geo, but the family of Hamid Mir that made the accusation. It is normal procedure that when a crime is committed the police, at the time of registering the FIR, asks the aggrieved who they suspect.

In this case, even before the attack, Hamid Mir had gone public with the view that he was under threat by the ISI and that, in the event he was attacked or killed, an FIR should be lodged against the ISI — and specifically, the DG ISI. All we did was broadcast the claims and give his brother the opportunity to inform everyone as to what Hamid Mir himself had said. Even if we had not provided him that opportunity, Hamid had sent a video recording of his statement to various media organisations; it would have probably been worse for Pakistan’s image had the news emanated from outside Pakistan that Hamid Mir suspected the ISI.

As for the presentation of the story and the photograph we chose to run with it, that is the discretion of the newsroom: they flashed the only picture they had. Even if one were to concede that the presentation could have been different, that certainly does not make us guilty of anti-state activity, which is what we are being accused of.

 Ansar Abbasi held the ISI chief responsible for the attack on Hamid Mir and called for his resignation. The Jang Group says it is his personal opinion. But this opinion was featured in your paper. Does this not mean it is in line with the editorial policy?

Again, Ansar Abbasi did not hold the ISI chief responsible. He expressed the opinion that in view of the accusation by Hamid Mir and his family, the ISI chief should resign. This was his personal opinion and not that of the organisation.

Ansar Abbasi wears two hats: that of Editor Investigations and that of a commentator and analyst. Everything he writes or says as a reporter, we own. But the opinion he expresses as a commentator or analyst is exclusively his own. He has appeared on many TV channels as a commentator and expressed diverse views, which we do not necessarily subscribe to.

On many occasions, Ansar Abbasi has also written articles which have contained scathing criticism of the policies or events organised by the group. Surely, we wouldn’t be criticising ourselves!

Some people have levelled allegations against Geo for running a campaign against the army and the ISI in collusion with the present government…

We have not run a campaign against the army or the ISI. We have only aired the accusation made by Hamid Mir and his family. Flying against that are scores of features, promos and news stories in which we have been very complimentary to ISI and the army; the support that the military has had from the Jang group and Geo in its fight against terrorism is on record.

There is no question of the government and the Geo colluding. If anything, Interior Minister Chaudhary Nisar has issued a strong statement against the Jang Group — in our opinion, a misplaced and unfair statement. The government also, at the behest of the ISI, lodged a very serious — again, in our opinion, one-sided and unfair — complaint with PEMRA. In view of these anti-Geo statements by government ministers and the complaint lodged with PEMRA, how can anyone claim that the government and Geo are colluding against the army?

It is also pertinent to mention here that every political party, when in the opposition, sings praises of the Jang Group and Geo, hailing it as a saviour and defender of freedom of expression, but as soon as it is part of the government, finds the boot on the other foot.

 Another criticism levelled against the Jang Group is that when reporters and journalists of other media groups are attacked, the rival organisation is never named. Why is that?

This is an unfortunate policy followed by all the media organisations in Pakistan. Other media groups don’t mention us and perhaps, in a tit-for-tat reaction, we don’t mention them either. We would be happy to sit with other media groups and develop a uniform policy on this.

There is a perception that the editorial policies are driven by the business management/owners of a media group, based on their interests and political leanings.

If you look at the recent history of the group, you will find that Geo and the Jang Group has lost billions because of our refusal to toe the line. If commercial considerations were to determine our editorial policy, why would General Pervez Musharraf have shut us down? Why would we have been denied public sector advertising? It is a matter of record — and can be verified from official reports — how much was paid to various media groups and how much advertising was placed with Geo and the Jang group, even though we are by far the biggest media group.

You cannot accuse us of taking on the military, the ISI and the government and then also say that commercial considerations determine our editorial policy — or in other words, that our editorial policy is on sale!

Right now, cable operators are being forced to push Geo towards the end of the channel listings. Hawkers are not being allowed to distribute our paper, especially inside cantonment areas. Does this indicate that we follow a policy dictated by commercial considerations? Or that we follow a fiercely independent editorial policy, regardless of the price we pay in terms of lost revenues and illegal actions taken against our group?

Is some of the reaction towards the Geo and Jang group, and the media in general, due to a perception that it has become a law unto itself?

Perhaps. The media can certainly influence perceptions: it informs the public and helps it reach conclusions. And thus can be seen as a kingmaker.

It is also a fact that during the last decade or so, the electronic media has simply erupted, with little to no prior training. So, perhaps, it is not as professional as it should be.

We are also amenable to the need for reforms — there should not be unbridled freedom of the media. Regulation is needed, but not for the purpose of state control. It has to be done in a transparent and fair manner.

 How do you deal with threats to your employees? What is the procedure?

Depending on the situation and the seriousness of the threat, we will ask the journalist to take certain precautions — change his phone, his work routine or sometimes, we will post him in another city. But there is only so much we, or any media organisation, can do. It is the responsibility of the government to provide protection to the media. We always inform the relevant authorities of the threat and ask for protection.

The same was followed in Hamid Mir’s case. He informed the management of threats to him. And this was communicated to the relevant authorities.

What is your view on the judicial commission that has been formed to investigate the attack on Hamid Mir?

We welcome the formation of the judicial commission. We hope it will work independently and without fear or ‘favour.’ Unfortunately, our history is replete with excellent reports, but no follow-up action on those reports. So we hope that not only will the commission produce a factually correct report, but that it will form the basis for concrete and meaningful action.

Hamid Mir received threats from various entities, not just the ISI. By playing up the ISI allegation, wasn’t the possibility that the attacker could’ve been from another quarter diminished?

Hamid Mir’s statement before and after the attack has already addressed this issue. He said that he was under threat from state and non-state actors. He felt that there was a nexus between the state and non-state actors. He also said that of all the individuals and organisations, he feared the ISI most.

There is a perception that Geo has been running a media trial based on interests that drive it… 

What interests could those be? We have been accused of being funded by Mossad, RAW, CIA to what have you. People have said that we have sold 50 per cent of our company to some Indian conglomerate. PEMRA accused us of taking 20 million dollars for the Aman ki Asha campaign.

If we are working on some foreign-funded or hidden agenda, don’t you think that an organisation as powerful and resourceful as the ISI would have gotten hold of us, charged us and taken us to court? It is easy to spin theories and level allegations, but when you ask for proof, there isn’t an iota of evidence.

We would be very happy if terms of reference of this commission were expanded to include a detailed scrutiny into all charges against the Geo and the Jang Group. We dare anyone and everyone to come with any evidence they have and have an open debate. This is not because we need any certificate of patriotism from anyone, but because these insinuations should be settled once and for all.

And if there is no evidence, and all these allegations are nothing more than a figment of someone’s imagination, are these charges brought up to distract from the actual questions we should be asking: Where is this country heading, who is responsible for the sorry state in which we are, what should be the balance of power between the civilian government and military authorities, what should be our relationship with other countries, especially India, and who should determine that?

This is the narrative that the powers that be wish to continue to control and Jang Group and Geo’s initiatives to push a narrative that says peace is preferable to dispute, democracy is preferable to dictatorship and that economic progress requires regional trade, this is unacceptable to them because of their own vested interests.

 Allegations are being levelled against Geo by some sections of the media and society, that it has become ‘too big for its boots,’ and that it views itself as a power that can ‘make or break’ governments. What do you have to say to this?

The media grows and flourishes through public patronage. No one can make media too big or too small, except the people who are the final arbiters of how good or how bad a particular media is. This, in turn, depends on the quality of content that is provided. The print as well as electronic media brands of the Jang Group are by far the largest in Pakistan. This is because the people of Pakistan, notwithstanding vicious actions by succeeding governments, continue to watch Geo and read Jang and The News as their preferred choice of information. That is the source of our so-called power, those are the ‘boots’ we fill and no one else can fit these boots, because no one takes the pain and perseverance required to be the best in the business.

This interview was originally published in Newsline’s May 2014 issue as a part of the cover story.

Farieha Aziz is a Karachi-based journalist and teacher. She joined Newsline in 2007, rising to assistant editor. Farieha was awarded the APNS award for Best Investigative Report (Business/Economic) for the year 2007-2008. She is a co-founder and Director at Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum of Digital Rights.