The infamous 15 minute uninterrupted ‘beeper’ from Shahbaz Gill may have wreaked havoc on popular Television channel ARY but this had been in the making for months. For too long, ARY has operated with impunity. The channel has, to crudely analyse, played the role of an assassin for one political party and powers that be to label personnel ‘traitors’, launch baseless allegations, trump up partisan corruption charges and peddle fake news in the process. It is also no coincidence that the channel has lost significant number of defamation cases, more so than any other channel on Pakistan’s mainstream media rostrum.
The latest bout ARY fought was on behalf of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) when it left no stone unturned to peddle the foreign conspiracy narrative. The brazenness and intensity with which ARY supported Imran Khan’s narrative of an active foreign conspiracy stunned even those who remain cognizant of severely polarised society around us. Several of its anchors hashtagged ‘imported hakoomat namanzoor’ (say no to an imported government) trended by PTI social media teams. This was visibly a step too far because journalists, despite their biases, never partook in party trends on twitter or behaved like party activists. On 31st March 2022, a few days before the vote of no confidence, anchor Arshad Sharif dedicated his show ‘power play’ to prove there was an active ‘American’ conspiracy in Pakistan. The show framed US diplomats meeting the then opposition politicians between October 2021 to March 2022 as evidence of an American conspiracy inside Pakistan. Truth be told (which ARY didn’t) that such meetings happen regularly whereby US diplomats meet politicians from across the spectrum. Politico-diplomatic gatherings have been the norm in Islamabad and elsewhere, but ARY painted this as evidence of conspiracy. Post show, images emerged on social media showing numerous US diplomats also met PTI pre 2018 election.
Despite categorical denial of an active U.S/foreign conspiracy in Pakistan by the National Security Council (NSC), the channel kept toeing PTI’s line. So much so that it ran bizarre and fake news of Ambassador Asad Majeed Khan having been ‘pressurised‘ to say that there was no foreign conspiracy. Asad Majeed later denied any pressure and abjectly refuted evidence of a US conspiracy. Media releases of National Security meetings countering claims of active foreign conspiracy were also twisted via ARY reportage to undermine state institutions. It is quite preposterous that despite intelligence agencies’ denial of an active foreign conspiracy via DG ISPR, the channel kept propagating myths to support Imran’s stance.
It is hard to imagine that Shehbaz Gill’s long speech on the beeper was not pre-meditated. He spoke at length for 15 minutes, without interruption from hosts, on the need for military rank & file to explore their conscience and prioritise ideological commitment to Imran Khan over orders from the military top brass
The diametrically opposing nature of stances adopted by ARY on army’s role are also indicative of its partisanship. Between 2016-2021, there was overwhelming evidence of political engineering in favour of one political party. The channel refused to report the pressure on PML-N lawmakers to shift allegiances, turned blind eye to censorship under previous regime, refused to acknowledge politicisation of verdicts and political victimisation of PDM politicians. As soon as armed forces’ institution publicly announced their ‘neutrality’, the channel aired opinions hinting at the establishment support for PDM’s Vote of No Confidence. ARY went as far as suggesting that the army was complicit in a ‘foreign conspiracy’, despite lack of any evidence. As early as December 2021, its primetime show ‘powerplay’ declared that the institutional heads were compromised.
Under PTI government, Pakistan slipped many a place in Press Freedom Index ranking because media houses were on the receiving end of censorship, but these vital issues were barely highlighted by the channel’s reporters or analysts. The channel’s blindness on media oppression under PTI government and before was such that some of its anchors made fun of victims.
Having grown up in a Pakistan where media houses and journalists suffer from censorship, I have no choice but to criticise ARY for its preposterous editorial policy which aired opinions & shady reportage and maintaining silence on censorship. In simpler words, ARY’s glaringly hypocritical editorial policy is rooted in partisanship.
It is no secret that there was a symbiotic relationship between previous government and ARY which was likely dominated by monetary and political considerations and discarding of journalistic integrity. For instance, the appointment of its news head Ammad Yousaf, a former cooking show host and personal associate of the TV owner with little news reporting experience. Sources privy to investigations on Gill’s beeper state that ‘the same guy was running PTI campaign, completely in line with PTI ministers as per his communication record’. It has also been alleged that ARY’s owner, Salman Iqbal was given tax relief by the FBR under Imran’s regime to the tune of 1 billion rupees by whitewashing the tax evasion charges. Former PM Imran Khan reportedly told FBR to shut the investigation. It is an open secret that certain anchors on ARY’s rostrum are personal favourites of PTI leadership and have also tagged along with him on various overseas trips. Similarly, both Arshad Sharif and Salman Iqbal were presented with the country’s highest civil award under previous government. The jury may be out on whether favours obtained affected editorial policy, but there is no doubt the channel became an effective instrument to propagate and popularise Imran’s foreign conspiracy narrative by constantly airing false opinions and news about it.
The channel’s blindness on media oppression under PTI government and before was such that some of its anchors made fun of victims.
Therefore, it is hard to imagine that Shehbaz Gill’s long speech on the beeper was not pre-meditated. He spoke at length for 15 minutes, without interruption from hosts, on the need for military rank & file to explore their conscience and prioritise ideological commitment to Imran Khan over orders from the military top brass. It is seemingly clear that the armed forces’ institution has reacted. Therefore, law is now in action as Gill faces sedition charges and ARY faces potential licence termination. Gill’s incitement to ‘mutiny’ and individuals involved should face the law, irrespective of the outcome. It may be convenient for those who never stood for media freedom and free speech to hide behind such slogans, but it should not be easy for the same individuals to avoid accountability.
Lastly, anybody standing for journalistic freedom and freedom of speech will argue despite its historic partisanship and wilful trampling of journalistic standards, ARY should not be muzzled. It remains a channel which millions subscribe to and consume. The follies of its head Salman Iqbal and a handful of ambitious anchors should not lead to the economic strangulation of the thousands that work for the channel.
The onus is on channel’s policy makers to begin adhering to higher standards of reporting which eliminate fake news and provide balanced views.