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Dawood, ISI ‘setting up’ TV channel in Pakistan

Pakistan’s media scene is abuzz with the entry of a new electronic media player. Unlike most other TV channels that are owned by known media groups, the BOL channel network has a unique backer — Dawood Ibrahim.

BOL is set to launch transmission by the end of the year and is currently hiring staff aggressively. The new network proudly claims that an advertisement it ran earlier this year resulted in over 40,000 applications.

But BOL’s marketing strategy is about more than just being another news channel in a country where there already over 40 news and regional channels battling for airtime and viewer attention.

In a market where at least three TV channels are set to close down owing to paucity of funds later this year, BOL is offering fantastic salaries and much more. It seems too good to be true. These packages include salaries, houses and luxury cars, even bodyguards, to the high profile anchors and TV show hosts.

The head of GEO TV, Pakistan’s leading news channel, has been hired on a package in excess of Pakistani `10 million per month (`6 million) say insiders. Many more high profile channel anchors and presenters are expected to follow. As a result of BOL’s entry, other channels have started to raise salaries to keep their star performers from leaving.

Kamran Khan, the host of the most highly rated current affairs programme on GEO TV called “Aaj Kamran Khan ke Saath”, was poached by BOL before being enticed back to the original channel.

The bigger buzz about BOL, however, is the nature of the channel’s backers.

According to people who were close to the process of setting up the new channel privately confirm that the two main parties are gangster-turned-terrorist Dawood Ibrahim and Pakistan’s premier spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence. They say the ISI has adopted this strategy as the country’s broadcast media has become increasingly independent and critical of the ISI’s activities.

Ibrahim has asked Chota Shakeel to oversee the channel’s finances. Shakeel has personally met some of the journalists who were offered jobs. The official sponsors of BOL TV are a Karachi-based online content company called Axact. The company claims to be one of Pakistan’s most vibrant software houses with over 5,000 employees. The company has a reputation for hosting illegal porn sites and selling fake degrees, charges it denies.

Most software houses stay clear of Axact. But the company has considerable clout in Karachi where it has commandeered office blocks and roads in the city’s upmarket Defence area, a sign of official sanction at a very high level. Axact’s owner and founder, a figure named Shoaib Shaikh, was once the subject of a British newspaper report accusing him of various wrongdoings, including hosting websites that charge for writing term papers and selling degrees for a fee. He denied the story.

Axact is close to Pakistan’s security establishment. Insiders say given its software background and its links with the country’s intelligence agencies, it is seen as a good launching pad for a media channel. Axact also handled a lot of the cyber activities of the ISI, say insiders.

It has also done work for the country’s defence industry and defence housing societies, a fact that it proudly displays on the company website. Axact, however, remains a front, say insiders.

Despite the role played by Axact, funding for BOL is coming from Ibrahim, confirm Pakistani industry insiders. Ibrahim is now believed to be based in Dubai. His business in Pakistan is being conducted through Akeel Karim Dhedi, a prominent Karachi businessman.

Dhedi, one of the major players on the Karachi Stock Exchange, acts as a conduit for Ibrahim’s funds but the on-ground contact person is Chota Shakeel. Ibrahim’s villa in Karachi’s upmarket Clifton area remains vacant as the don spends his time in Dubai. But his business interests continue to expand, with Dhedi launching some prestigious housing projects recently in which it is believed Dawood is a partner.

Dhedi has run a TV channel before. Sun Biz-TV was owned by Dhedi till it was closed a few years ago following consistent losses. The issue is not red ink. It has to do with running a channel which can compete with the market leaders.

BOL has its targets high: it wants to upstage GEO TV, which is owned by the Jang Group. Jang, earlier pro-government, has become very critical of the army and Pakistan’s intelligence agencies.

BOL will start with a news and entertainment channel but will soon move on to hosting a sports channel and then make forays in the print media. The larger plan includes setting up an English and Urdu newspaper.

The feasibility of launching such high profile media projects has been questioned by many who insist such numbers do not make it viable financially. But some officials say a number of businessmen have been taken on board for this project. One of them is a major real estate magnate, whose name earlier appeared in bribing top journalists to speak against the chief justice. Government advertising is expected to be a major source of revenue.

Indian official sources say launching an entire channel s relatively unusual for the ISI which has, in the past, bought journalists, paid money to existing channels or tried to influence specific programmes.

(Courtesy – Hindustan Times)


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