Can’t they just be spies?
The fake WikiLeaks story that shamed so many good newspapers in Pakistan last week brought to mind a conversation I once had many, many years ago with a friend of mine who had just risen to an important place in one of the country’s premier spy agencies. He was furious with his colleagues and vowed to use every ounce of his newfound eminence within the agency to keep it away from the media. Here is what had apparently happened.
When anti-India protests first broke out at a mass scale in Kashmir some 20 years ago, the only news outlet which religiously reported every incident of violence, resulting from that uprising, was Pakistan Television (PTV). There was much excitement in the shady corridors of Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus as hundreds of jihadis, flush with their perceived success in Afghanistan and inspired by PTV’s coverage, made a beeline for the Line of Control.
Given its limited reach and influence outside Pakistan, though, PTV’s coverage couldn’t quite pull the same kind of foreign jihadis towards Kashmir as the global media had earlier managed to attract towards Afghanistan. And as was the norm in those days, the spy agency in question, immediately took upon itself to address the issue.
It was decided to raise a brand new news agency dedicated to Kashmir. The agency would use the sprawling network of its informants in Kashmir to gather information on the uprising and would feed it to the global media so that the situation in Kashmir was brought to the world’s attention. There was apparently a consensus that given the agency’s human resource network on the ground, it was perhaps the best placed outfit in the world to help the media report on the situation in the valley.
And so it started with millions invested in raising the said news agency and introducing it to media outlets around the world.
However, just as the world was beginning to think that it may be worth its while to deal with this brilliant news agency that seemed to be very well entrenched in the valley, the spooks running the operation went haywire and lost all perspective on what they had set out to achieve.
As more and more newspapers started accepting its copy, the agency started reporting a dramatic increase in the number of Indian casualties at the hands of our fearless jihadis. The daily death toll rose at such a furious pace that even PTV broadcasters started looking a wee bit embarrassed reading out the agency’s copy. Within a matter of months, no newspaper outside Pakistan was willing to touch its copy with a barge pole.
Several years later, one western analyst, writing on Kashmir, said if that agency was to be believed, jihadis must have killed all the Indian Army posted in the valley twice over by now. And that was how a multi-million-rupee venture came to nothing. No wonder my friend was furious at his colleagues for their sheer incompetence.
Going through the contents of the fake WikiLeaks story, it seems obvious that nothing much has changed in these last 20 years as far as the spy network’s understanding of how media works. They apparently still believe that good propaganda merely means getting someone to print your lies. It doesn’t matter how transparent the lies are and how easily they can be caught out.
I so, so wish my friend hadn’t retired and was still a spy. We really need someone to pull up the idiot whose brainchild it was. He may be clueless how much his crazy dishonesty has added to the trust deficit that Pakistan faces internationally. But even if he cannot be held accountable for his madness, someone should at least try and keep him away from the media.
The writer is head of BBC Urdu Service email@example.com
Published in The Express Tribune, December 12th, 2010.