Call it propaganda or plain wishful thinking. Or maybe it is a pie in the sky. Purportedly an investigation. The other day I stumbled upon a very lengthy, but strange story in Pakistan’s Daily Mail. Written by someone not less than the paper’s Editor-in-Chief, with additional reporting by Christina Palmer in New Delhi, Sandra Johnson in Washington D.C and Cherry Ferguson in London, it highlighted the role of India’s external intel agency RAW in propping up Indian media.
It made some wild allegations -- most notably that Subhash Chandra’s Zee TV is a RAW-funded operation. But more on that a bit later. It also speculated about something called SAFMA, and the role that it was playing at the behest of RAW. As someone who grew up reading John Le Carre, most of the report read like a George Smiley and Karla espionage and counter espionage operation. Diatribe, but with some semblance of truth.
Babar wrote that the “media is immensely used to propagate one’s views and perception. The media endeavours are extensively manipulated to change the world opinion in (one’s) own favour and against the enemy. Almost all the governments have given a free hand to their respective intelligence agencies to manipulate media and fund the media organisations and individuals to gain the required results. No matter if it is the CNN journalists embedded in US troops, invading Iraq or venom emitting Indian journalists and TV anchors targeting Pakistan after the Mumbai carnage, the Intelligence hands are always there to direct them and to fund them.”
While it is well-known that Indian intel agencies - RAW and IB - have used media personnel to further their cause, it was a little difficult to fathom how Zee could have been architected by RAW. Babar went on to paint RAW in a hue, hitherto unheard of and unknown. According to Daily Mail’s big-ticket investigative report, Indian intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) used this tactic first almost 30 years back. The report stated: “In the mid-80s, when Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister of India, RAW sent a media related proposal to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), which was straight away approved. According to this proposal, RAW was given a free hand to use as much as required funds to make a solid grip on national and international media. Initially, RAW came up with a long term project through which, it started short listing young, potential and ambitious Indian journalists and later started penetrating them to different media organisations across the world. Today, according to rough estimate, 90 per cent of the Indian or Indian origin journalists working in different media organisations throughout the world, are those having the RAW blessings and one way or the other, promoting Indian perception and delivering to the RAW's requirements. The success of RAW in this direction can be gauged from one fact that it has managed to get Indian journalists inducted even in leading Chinese media organisations like the China Daily, the Beijing Review etc.”
While this may be partly true, the extent of the penetration that the Daily Mail has painted leaves one in a tizzy. Sounded a little fanciful. I guess Indian correspondents in sensitive foreign locations may be paying attention to RAW diktats, but it is difficult to comprehend that just about every self-respecting journalist would be on RAW or IB's payroll. Or taking dictation from intel agencies. Diplomatic and foreign correspondents would definitely be influenced because they would have to toe-the-India-line, and would probably be getting vital tip-offs. And this would be the right thing to do. For India will have to come first.
The Daily Mail report then suggested, “In the second phase, RAW started funding local media organisations in India and also started buying the services of journalists working in the foreign countries’ leading media organisations. According to a Japanese journalist, who worked in India for a Japanese news agency for about three years, the India-based foreign journalists are very well looked after and entertained by RAW officials who develop interaction with these foreign journalists as very warm but mysterious friends. These India-based foreign journalists are at least once a year, are offered a vacation trip to Dubai where their boarding, lodging and even shopping, are all paid off by their friends. According to some reports, RAW is practicing the same with certain Islamabad-based foreign journalists.”
Then came the clincher. The report said: “RAW launched a mega project to control regional journalists, and to bring them to a secret RAW platform when it established South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) a few years back. The SAFMA, the darling baby of RAW has so far been focusing on highlighting the issue of Indian occupied Kashmir with RAW's perspective and nothing much or more. The members of SAFMA, whenever asked as to how they manage to generate funds for the highly lavish functions and seminars under its banners since all of them are paid employees of different media organisations of South Asia, remain mum.” Interesting observations and questions. Some that several quarters in Indian media would also like answers to.
The report further stated, “RAW has also gained the services of different columnists, reporters and analysts at top media organisations like Times of India, Indian Express, The Hindu and Hindustan Times etc. Coming towards the electronic media of India, RAW has made remarkable achievement in diluting media with intelligence endeavours. It is not only
funding different anchors and analysts but RAW has established a huge network in the shape of ZEE TV. Though RAW spends a huge chunk of money to achieve targets by funding 9X News, Aajtak, NDTV 24x7, Times Now, TV9, Time TV (?) etc, yet it runs the most venomous news channel the Zee TV. Zee News's offices are considered to be the media headquarters of RAW.”
Now these are serious insinuations which leave just about nobody above reproach in Indian media. They are not substantiated with hard facts, and are a bit difficult to digest. And most curiously, nobody can challenge them in a court of law, for Indian law's jurisdiction certainly doesn’t cover Pakistan.
The investigations of The Daily Mail further revealed that RAW controls whole paraphernalia of media network including ZEE TV and Films Network, Asian News International (ANI) etc. It alleged that, “The ZEE network retains the pivotal position in this RAW controlled propaganda and misinformation spiral. It was actually RAW that has been the master mind behind the establishment of ZEE Television Network. According to Daily Mail sources the proposal for establishing a private sector television channel actually under the control of Indian intelligence agency was first presented to the late Indian Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi. The proposal could not materialize at that time as Mrs. Gandhi had certain reservations about giving more powers to RAW for she suspected it of being behind her earlier electoral defeat at the hands of another Late Prime Minister of India Mr. Murar ji (Morarji) Desai. However, Indian movie star Amitabh Bachan (Bachchan) who was a personal friend of Rajiv Gandhi got the cue. His brother later reportedly siphoned part of the Rs.64 crore kick-backs of the Swedish Bofors guns deal into setting up a private satellite channel by the name of TV Asia.
“TV Asia enjoyed certain patronage from Indian government and intelligence agencies though it was financed privately. In return RAW enjoyed certain leverage on TV Asia; nonetheless its officials continued the campaign for having their own channel. The breakthrough was achieved when a high ranking RAW operative Vasant Parekh found a willing partner in the chairman of Essel Group of Industries, Subhash Chandra.”
The report is replete with spelling mistakes and factual inaccuracies. Most of it sounds not just like a canard, but bizarre. The report goes on to level a catalogue of unsubstantiated charges undermining one of India's most successful entrepreneurs Subahash Chandra, and his raft of television channels.
Similarly, the Daily Mail report lists how RAW seized control of the struggling television news agency Asian News International (ANI). When the agency ran into financial troubles RAW came forth to help it with idea of producing South Asia News line which all the Indian entertainment TV Channels not producing their own news bulletins were forced to telecast. It says that Pramod Mahajan, I & B minister in the first BJP government played a pivotal part in the so called 'tightening of the noose' around Indian media. The report said: “Pramod reportedly threatened these channels with the sweeping powers under the PRASAR BHARATI
(Indian Broadcasting) ACT, 1990 Chapter IV, 23; Power of Central Government to give Directions if they did not comply. Even his successor Sushma Swaraj kept calling shots at the media also making coercive use of the draconian Indian National Security Act, 1980.”
There is a lot of stuff in the investigative story, which walks the fine line between fact and fiction. It goes on to detail the enormous success of ZEE in South Asia and Middle East encouraged its sponsors to target the Asian viewers in Britain and Europe.
“The prime objective was to disillusion the expatriate Pakistanis and Kashmiris from their ideological basis. Britain, being the home of largest Kashmiri refugee community outside Asia, has become a cause of concern for the Indian establishment. The growing influence of Kashmiri community in the political circles of UK, their frequent protests over the human rights violations in the Indian held Kashmir and demand for the right of self-determination for Kashmiris is often embarrassing for the Indians.”
Even if this was true, I think it was doing India a great service.
The report highlights how PTV sold programmes to ZEE at throw away prices. The PTV establishment of the time credited itself for having sold the programmes with no other clientele. Little did they know the diabolic use that ZEE had planned for these programs. However, PTV authorities maintain that some of its programs were recorded off air by a Lahore based spurious company and sold to ZEE TV. Subsequently PTV obtained a court injunction to stop ZEE from telecast of some of its programs. Nonetheless this gap is now filled by the private productions that have mushroomed in Pakistan over the last few years.
The report is littered with many examples of how Zee TV has been used as the propaganda arm of the BJP appointed RAW administration. Some seem credible, but the majority are difficult to believe. Somewhere in this exercise of obfuscation, the real intent appears to be to damage Zee TV and Subhash Chandra's credibility. The moot point being that if Zee was a pliable tool or instrument in the nationalistic designs of the Government of India and its external intel arm, then it was for a just cause. These things are known to happen everywhere in the world. The reality is that Subhash Chandra has created a viable enterprise and taken it beyond an alleged ‘propaganda blitz’ arm. That is if any of Daily Mail’s big bang story is true. An organisation like ANI would also be strategic fit for the Government of India. I am not sure where SAFMA fits in, and what tangible role it plays.
The report ends by saying, “RAW is now concentrating on ZEE and SONY Entertainment Television (SET). This is just one case that The Daily Mail has presented here for its valued readers across the world. The Daily Mail is near to complete its investigations about RAW's relations to many other television channels and newspapers of India and Aajtak-RAW nexus would be the second of this series of investigative reports. The Daily Mail's investigations indicate that RAW is spending at least 500 million to 700 million rupees on media organizations and individuals per year and the ZEE TV project is not included in this budget.”
Like I said, if true then every jingoist bone in my body should support the endeavour. If fiction, then the establishment in Pakistan is obviously hurting. While a lot of derision is reserved for India's intel agencies internally, if the Pak media is devoting so much time and effort to counter RAW’s activities, then RAW is clearly making an impact somewhere. And that is important.
Anyway, both Smiley and Karla would be proud of this Le Carre like fiction.
(Sandeep Bamzai is a well-known journalist, who started his career as a stringer with The Statesman in Kolkata in 1984. He has held senior editorial positions in some of the biggest media houses in three different cities - Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi. In late 2008, he joined three old friends to launch a start-up – Sportzpower Network – which combines his two passions of business and sport. Familiar with all four media – print, television, Internet and radio, Bamzai is the author of three different books on cricket and Kashmir. The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not those of the editors and publisher of exchange4media.com.)