Call it the new style of reporting Pakistan’s ‘perfidy’. Go to Afghanistan, embed with the National Directorate of Security (NDS), interview alleged Taliban commanders, their faces covered, present their ‘confessions’ to the world as an ‘authentic’ story on what Pakistan and the Inter-Services Intelligence is doing, run an old sound-bite by Pakistani military spokesperson and, lest I forget, interview ‘impartial’ actors like former NDS chief Amrullah Saleh, former CIA officer Bruce Riedel and former British officer Col Richard Kemp and voila!
That this should happen on BBC2 makes one shake one’s head.
Wait. We haven’t got to the facts section yet. The question here, as yet, is not about what Pakistan might be doing but whether the manner of presentation of this documentary passes some tests of good reporting. Simply put, it doesn’t.
• How could the BBC ensure the veracity of its story when the primary facilitator for it was the NDS? Pakistan has, in its custody, many Taliban commanders who have been trained in camps in Afghanistan. Would the BBC interview them and present that documentary as authentic proof of what several intelligence agencies in Afghanistan are doing to hurt Pakistan without corroborative reporting?
• Why did the BBC not feel the need to talk to Pakistani officials, resorting instead to running an old sound-bite by Maj Gen Athar Abbas, DG-ISPR? If that is correct then it is akin to deception?
• Why did it not underscore the documentary with the disclaimer that given the fog in this region with several state and non-state actors playing multiple games its story cannot be presented as anything beyond what is visible and is said by people who have their biases and agendas?
• Why was there no attempt to mention the role of state actors other than Pakistan? Is the Pakistani state acting – even if, for the sake of the argument, one were to accept the allegations contained in the report – in a vacuum and without any cogent reason(s)?
• Are other state actors merely reacting to Pakistan’s perfidy? Is there a context here, and if there is, should the BBC not have mentioned it?
• How does the BBC know for sure it spoke with Taliban commanders and not plants by the NDS? Does it have any independent proof of the IDs of those it spoke with, and who are incognito in the documentary, beyond the NDS’ word about them?
• Does the BBC not know the published views of Saleh and Riedel on Pakistan? Should that have been a concern for the channel?
Nemo iudex in causa sua: it is a principle of natural justice that no person can judge a case in which they have an interest. In journalism, one has to deal with biased actors. But it is precisely for that reason that a reporter has to make that extra effort to sift the grain from the chaff. The BBC documentary, titled “Secret Pakistan”, fails most of the basics tests. That raises the obvious question: is this an attempt to frame Pakistan or just bad reporting?
Now to some facts.
The documentary says there is no significant troop deployment in North Waziristan. This is a widely held misconception and I first tried to dispel it in a May 25, 2010 article in The Indian Express captioned, “A very long engagement”. This is what I wrote:
“There are more troops deployed to and around North Waziristan than South Waziristan, where the army launched Operation Rah-e-Nijat (Path to Salvation) last October . Statistics compiled from media reports and local journalists, and corroborated with data from the military, show that since 2005, militants based in the area have launched between 70 and 80 raids on different army posts in North Waziristan. These attacks have resulted in about 200 casualties, including over 50 soldiers killed.”
This was more than a year ago. There have been more attacks since then. There is a Division-plus with 5 Brigades deployed to the area which is over 30,000 troops. The Frontier Corps wings are in addition to this deployment. To call this deployment insignificant would take some doing.
Then, of course, we have the supposed ISI generals monitoring training camps including suicide bombers. They come to these camps in uniform so that they can be ID-ed. These camps also have Al-Qaeda cadres, forget the number of top AQ leaders the ISI has captured and handed over to the US or killed. And while ISI ‘generals’ train AQ and Taliban commanders, AQ, TTP and their affiliate groups have attacked and killed nearly 300 ISI officials and blown up 5 ISI centres across Pakistan.
So, while the ISI trains Afghan Taliban, who is training those who are attacking the ISI here and also killing Pakistani civilians? According to data compiled by PIPS, from 2008 until Sept 2011, there have been 259 suicide attacks in Pakistan which have killed 4124 people and injured or disabled 10,216. The fact is that such camps exist on both sides of the Durand Line and suicide attacks have been a problem on both sides. If it is accepted that Pakistan is sending suicide bombers to Afghanistan, then who is sending the ones that come and attack Pakistan – the ISI?
We already have the WikiLeaks saga with NDS reporting on alleged Pakistani activities, reports based on dubious sources and quite often contradictory. Sure, the NDS would do that. It’s part of its job. But it shouldn’t be the job of the BBC to swallow the NDS narrative hook, line and sinker and present it to the world as the ultimate truth on what Pakistan is doing.
Maj Gen Athar Abbas was less charitable. “It is because of the miserable performance of all the intelligence agencies in Afghanistan that this thrust is being directed towards the ISI. If they cannot do their job, they shouldn’t undermine our effort this side of the border.”
There, then. How should I treat this statement, as gospel? I can’t. It is the general’s job to defend the Pakistani military and the ISI. I will report what he said but I cannot present what he said as the ultimate truth. That would require more sources. But then I am not the mighty BBC!
The writer is Contributing Editor, The Friday Times.