A former Voice of America employee, now part of Pakistani government, hands over airwaves over the tribal belt to the Americans
After coming to power last year, one of the first things the new government did was appoint Mr. Murtaza Solangi, a Voice of America employee, as the head of Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation. Mr. Solangi worked for Ms. Farahnaz Ispahani, who worked for VOA before getting a seat in the Senate of Pakistan representing the PPP government. She is also the spouse of Mr. Husain Haqqani, Ambassador to Washington who is also the present government’s undercover media guru [tasked with defending anything to do with Zardari and US]. Reorganizing Pakistani foreign policy and media policy were two things Mr. Haqqani focused at the start of his government’s term. Solangi, Ispahani and Haqqani do not represent the ‘pro-US lobby’ within the incumbent Pakistani government. They are just the tip of the iceberg. In our tribal belt, you can hardly catch the signals of PTV News, the state-run Pakistani channel, but Mr. Solangi deemed it appropriate to give VOA three transmitters to unleash US propaganda inside this small patch of Pakistan. Mr. Solangi is a professional Pakistani journalist. The problem with the deal he struck with VOA is that it expands US influence in a country that has too much of it, in an area where Pakistan’s national security interest is already under attack from foreign elements in Afghanistan.
By Ahmed Quraishi
Friday, 6 November 2009.
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan—As of October 2009, the Pakistani government has quietly allowed the United States to expand its Afghanistan-based media propaganda network to include Pakistan. This clandestinely signed deal is bound to generate more anger when the Pakistani government is yet to fully recover from accusations of a sellout on the Kerry-Lugar aid bill.
In 2006, the United States set up a transmitter in Afghanistan for the radio broadcast of US political and military propaganda in that occupied country. Four years later, this propaganda moves to Pakistan.
The irony is that Pakistan, which disputes unverified US claims that terrorist camps exist deep inside Pakistan in Quetta and Muridke, will now be allowing a US government financed propaganda arm to say as much using transmitters owned by the Government of Pakistan and directed at Pakistani citizens.
The Voice of America, a US government agency, and Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation reached an agreement earlier this month where Pakistan agreed to expand the Afghanistan-based US propaganda network – the Americans call this ‘public diplomacy’ – to Pakistan. Under the deal, VOA will use PBC equipment and transmitters in Peshawar, Islamabad, and Lahore to distribute VOA material in Pashto and Urdu on medium and FM waves.
A little noticed VOA press release, issued in Washington three weeks ago quotes VOA director Mr. Danforth W. Austin as announcing, "We’re delighted Pakistan’s Cabinet has ratified our agreement with PBC,” adding, “This arrangement will allow millions of people in all parts of Pakistan to listen to the VOA’s popular news and information programmes.”
Interestingly, the Pakistani cabinet did not publicize the agreement. An internet search of the stories filed for the month of October by the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan does not return any stories on the VOA-PBC agreement, or on Pakistani cabinet’s ratification. The VOA press release is reproduced online by several American and other news websites and is dated Oct. 13. However, government sources in Islamabad indicate the agreement was signed sometime in September and referred to Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani for approval.
Interestingly, Mr. Murtaza Solangi, Director General PBC and the man who sat opposite Mr. Austin on the proverbial negotiation table was one of Mr. Austin’s subordinates until May 2008, working as a presenter and editor at VOA. The soft-spoken Mr. Solangi was close to late Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto and interviewed her several times during her visits to Washington while in self-exile. After Feb. 2008 elections, the PPP government appointed him as DG PBC. Mr. Solangi came highly recommended by PPP’s closed circle of media handlers, considered close to President Zardari.
Washington will now be taking its information warfare to the Pakistani Pashtun population at a time when Pakistanis are debating if they should share Washington’s policy goals in Afghanistan and especially on the unfair US treatment to the Pashtuns.
Two US propaganda radio channels, Deewa Radio in Pashto and Urdu-language program Radio Aap Ki Dunyaa will now reach more parts of Pakistan with stronger signals.
Since there are major differences of opinion between Islamabad and Washington over how to manage America’s floundering Afghanistan occupation, it is yet to be seen how the Pakistani government will tolerate if the two foreign propaganda radio channels aired material that contradicts official Pakistani position.
It should be remembered that Deewa Radio and Radio Aap Ki Dunyaa are part of the US government’s information warfare effort targeting certain regions where US has strategic interest. The two channels are part of a long list of recent similar channels that include: Radio Sawa [in Arabic, targeting Iraq and the region], Al Hurra TV [targeting Iraqi audience], Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty [targeting Russia and its Eurasian backyward], among others, including a radio beam targeting Iran.
In normal circumstances, agreements such as the VOA-PBC are not unusual. But in the context of the emerging differences between Washington and Islamabad on how to clean up the American mess in Afghanistan, the deal will raise eyebrows.
Saudi Arabia, for example, declined to allow Washington the use of its territory to relay radio signals aimed at the Arabic-speaking audience in the Middle East. Smaller and insecure countries such Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, however, agreed to this arrangement.
The VOA-PBC deal shows that media management remains one of the weakest links within the civilian and military bureaucracies in Pakistan. Otherwise, a country the size of Pakistan should have been establishing by now its own media projection radio and TV networks in strategic languages instead of accepting to rebroadcast American propaganda. Pakistan’s needs to put its message across to the Iranians in Persian, to the Afghans in Pashto and Dari, to the Chinese and to an international audience. Pakistan is even unable to convey its message to the people of an ally like China. And instead of recruiting and reorganizing its official media outlets on nationalist and creative lines, Pakistani governments have a knack in ‘importing’ professionals not only from certain countries for political reasons, but also importing their thinking and biases. While Mr. Solangi is a professional radio journalist by the testimony of most of those who worked with him, his policy direction betrays itself in the recent deal and might even be seen as running counter to what Pakistan should be pursuing in terms of its own public diplomacy.
During former president Musharraf’s government, a Pakistani-American was imported to head something called Pakistan Image Project that eventually led to a loss of millions of rupees from the public money with nothing to show for them.