The government of Pakistan has placed a gag order on the company behind Bol, a brand new, well-financed Pakistani media outlet that gave co-ownership to journalists. Issued by the Ministry of Information, the gag puts in jeopardy the future of two thousand employees of Bol, which was scheduled to launch in just a few weeks.
Employees and journalist organizations have been staging full scale protests outside the Karachi Press Club in response, yet Pakistan's vibrant, largely independent but cutthroat broadcast media industry has been mostly silent on the move.
Protest not covered #BOLkoBolnayDo @nadeemmalik pic.twitter.com/MR3Jl6Y6fy
— Faisal Siddiqui (@faisalsiddiquii) May 28, 2015
The directive from Pakistan's Ministry of Information comes a day after federal agents arrested Bol CEO Shoaib Shiekh, who also heads Axact, a technology firm being investigated for an alleged multi-million dollar scam selling fake university degrees online. Sheikh was taken into custody 10 days after the New York Times published an in-depth exposé on the Karachi-based company, which triggered the investigation.
Bol had promised to change Pakistan's media industry by giving journalists ownership of the company through an “Ownership League”. A statement published on Bol's website declared: “Bol Ownership League will surely open a new chapter in the corporate history of Pakistan which will ‘revolutionize’ the media industry in the true sense of the word.”
Most of Bol's senior staff resigned five days before the gag was issued, including Kamran Khan, the President and Editor-in-Chief of the Bol group who owned shares in the company. Khan tweeted:
Charges against Axact far from proven in court but my conscience not letting me continue.I've decided to disassociate from Bol immediately
— Kamran Khan (@AajKamranKhan) May 23, 2015
Protests mount in wake of gag order
Amir Jahangir, a media executive and co-founder of Pakistani Journalism Agahi Awards questioned the gag order on Bol:
How can the #Nawaz Government ask to stop #BOL when it has not done anything. BOL and Axact are two different legal entities #BOLkoBolnayDo — Amir Jahangir (@amirjahangir) May 28, 2015
Amir Zia, a senior journalist with Bol, one of the few organizational leaders to have refrained from resigning, boldly led protesters outside the Karachi Press Club.
Govt notice shows #Bol is being silenced without any evidence, judicial proceedings; Shame on #Sharif #BolKoBolnayDo https://t.co/fzO5gRxRqP
— AmirZia (@AmirZia1) May 28, 2015
#Sharif govt working at the behest of media tycoons to crush #Bol. Trying to control the national narrative, muzzle press. #BOLkoBolnayDo
— AmirZia (@AmirZia1) May 28, 2015
More than 2,000 #Bol employees to lose jobs as #Sharif govt moves fast to stop its transmission thru #PEMRA. #BolKoBolanyDo
— AmirZia (@AmirZia1) May 28, 2015
On Twitter, the hashtag #BolKoBolnayDo started trending and was used over 6K times within 4 hours. Bol literally means “Speak” and the hashtag translates to “Let Bol Speak Up.”
This user expressed disappointment with Prime Minister Sharif and the media regulation authority PEMRA:
No media coverage of protest against govt's decision to suspend BOL. shame on Nawaz Sharif and PEMRA #BOLkoBolnayDo pic.twitter.com/jEtyASCTsk
— allrounder (@alIrounder) May 28, 2015
Another Twitter user expressed frustration with the government order, calling it unconstitutional:
What freedom of expression do v talk in Pakistan? #PEMRA Article 19 of the Constitution be read again #BOLkoBolnayDo pic.twitter.com/aPOpExtYh3 — افضل رحیم خان یوسفزئ (@afzalrahim_pk) May 28, 2015
Many have expressed surprise at the rapid response from Pakistan's government, which is not known to be this efficient. Even the New York Times remarked on how quickly the Axact investigation, courts, arrests and warrants are moving.
I've been impressed by how seriously Pakistan has investigated the Axact scandal, rather than just being defensive http://t.co/33sOTWQa9U
— Nicholas Kristof (@NickKristof) May 23, 2015
Most of Pakistan's two dozen private news channels are run by competitive business families or seths, as they are referred to locally in Pakistan. These channels run by media tycoons have a history of censoring news about their competitors or giving them tainted coverage.
The Express media group, which has ties with the Pakistan Tribune and the International New York Times, ran a mocking animated clip showing rats jumping from a sinking ship. Photoshopped onto the rats’ heads were the faces of well-known Bol journalists who had announced they were resigning from Bol following the Axact investigation.
While Bol's model was inspirational for many in the industry, the company's finances were long shrouded in mystery. It was unclear how Bol could afford the lucrative salaries and benefits it was offering its employees. Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani journalist, politician, diplomat and now scholar tweets:
Lesson for journo friends from #Bol #Axact saga: When someone offers way more money than market rates, the money is often shady
— Husain Haqqani (@husainhaqqani) May 23, 2015
“The Article Nobody Will Publish”
Wajahat Khan, a Pakistani broadcast journalist, joined Bol as a senior vice president three months ago and resigned a few days after the New York Times investigation. In yet another interesting twist, the gag order came three days after the Pakistani blog Pak Tea House published a post authored by Khan, entitled “The Article Nobody Will Publish”.
In the story, Wajahat describes 12 years of experience working at seven different companies in Pakistan's temperamental, private and independent broadcast media industry which he likened to a “good, consistent drug deal”:
Sometimes, I got fired. Other times, I left on principle or got recruited by a bigger gun. But every time, there was a toxic cocktail of the same-old-same-old – office politics, curbed editorial freedom, delayed pay-cheques, pandering to sponsors, corporate, political and security bosses who made their presence felt but weren’t technically in control, not enough re-investment in our internal systems and structures to sustain the counter-culture and public service ethos of what journalism must strive to become instead of the ratings-driven, family-owned, suits-and-boots dominated chop shop, a mogul-military mouthpiece, that it is in most newsrooms today around the country.
But like an abused, dependent spouse, I kept coming back to my tormentor. I was in denial. Sometimes, I led myself into believing I didn’t have a choice, and carried on. Other times, I tried to break loose with a fellowship, or a foreign gig, or print work, but those got old, fast. With all due self-respect, as the “revolving door” of the media industry is a scary machine, you learnt to take on the world, except your own, because of that dependency. It was like a good, consistent drug deal: There was nowhere else to go, and I was hooked on the product. We all work like that. We all do.