Clients in the Persian Gulf, servers in Latvia, fictitious schools in the United States. Pakistani company Axact ran a truly global hoodwinking operation far surpassing anything a Nigerian prince could dream of. As dozens of its employees are detained and more dirt on the multibillion-dollar company comes to light, including the revelation that its CEO Shoaib Ahmad Sheikh paid just Rs 26 in taxes last year, the full scope of Axact’s activities (still euphemistically described as “technology services”) and their consequences are still being fully realised.

However, the most immediate impact of the scam has been on Pakistan’s media industry.

Axact is the parent company of the still-to-be-launched news network BOL. Though not on the air yet, the network was the subject of speculation even before a detailed investigation by The New York Times exposed Axact’s higher education scam. The network aggressively recruited familiar faces from rivals, including BOL’s Editor-in-Chief Kamran Khan, who is one of Pakistan’s most well-known anchors, and a host of other journalists who it designated as Senior Executive Vice Presidents.

In little time, BOL’s logo and accompanying slogan “Pakistan’s eminent number 1 media enterprise” became ubiquitous on billboards and even autos. Outside Axact’s large offices stand a large fleet of vans and sedans, and in an industrial district not too far away stands Bol’s large red building visible for miles. For good reasons, BOL’s financial resources and ambitions were already famous in journalistic circles. Some said the notorious criminal Dawood Ibrahim bankrolls it, some said no, it is Pakistan’s equally notorious spy agency, the ISI. The network categorically denied these rumours but couldn’t really eradicate them. The rumours, in turn, led to speculation not only on how powerful BOL would be as a media conglomerate, but also on how threatening it would be to Pakistan’s already fractured media landscape.

First the indignation

With journalists already being censored and attacked, would an allegedly establishment-backed channel scale back the Pakistani media’s hard-fought freedoms, or would it simply add more spice to an already heated battle for ratings? Would it be a government mouthpiece, or would it practice the bold journalism its website (not a fake one) promises it would? Are its resources comparable to other channels, or enough to blow its rivals out of the water? And also having seemingly been around for ages, just when exactly will it launch?

The Axact scandal has refocused these questions and given them greater urgency. (The question of its launch date was answered the day after the scandal broke: it will begin transmission on the first day of Ramadan.) The irony of Pakistan’s best-known journalists, many using the prefix “investigative”, working for the perpetrators of such a massive scandal was difficult to overlook, and quickly BOL representatives went into damage control.

Kamran Khan appeared on the programme of his former colleague at Geo News, Hamid Mir, sticking by Axact’s typo-ridden, indignant response to The New York Times story. He promised to “distance” himself from BOL if the allegations are proven true. BOL went on the offensive, standing by the Axact line that it is a conspiracy (yet another one) forged by BOL’s rival media groups to defeat it. (The Express Media Group is the local affiliate of the International New York Times.) He also insinuated that The New York Times has it in for Pakistan, citing numerous scandals and warned not to ignore “the pattern”.

Then the legal response

BOL Executive Vice President Jasmeen Manzoor wrote on Twitter: “Just a small reminder not too long ago a channel defamed the entire ISI and Army ! Audacity of these people to point fingers to Bol ! Wow.” He was referring to the Jang Group and its struggle against the establishment after the assassination attempt on Hamid Mir last year. Wajahat S Khan, another BOL Executive Vice President, simply said, “Innocent until proven guilty. Period.”

Indignant responses aside, BOL also sought legal recourse, serving a defamation notice on Pak Tea House, an independent blog that rounded some Twitter responses to the scandal. In addition, it is going after the International New York Times as well as the expose’s author, who is described in BOL’s response as “some journalist Declan Walsh”. It was perhaps this offensive that prompted Pakistan’s largest English language newspapers, Dawn and The Express Tribune, to wait close to 20 hours after the story broke to place it on their pages, and neither has published an editorial on it yet. Broadcast networks have been different, being far more confrontational in their handling of the case perhaps because of the impending rivalry.

Perhaps more than changing the media industry, BOL has been instrumental in exposing its existing fissures: network rivalries, censorship, graft, nepotism, and an ever-present threat of violence. In this environment, BOL, and the controversy it brings, would be an entirely befitting addition to the fraught and uncertain media industry it seeks to dominate.