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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Axact and diploma mills: The Article Nobody Will Publish

Nobody Will Publish – by Wajahat S Khan The Article Nobody Will Publish – by Wajahat S Khan May 26th, 2015 | 69 Comments Editors Note: Wajahat S. Khan sent me an email with this heartfelt piece on his recent experience with the ” the all-consuming, thankless revolving door that is Pakistani broadcast media”. He rightly complains about his seniors and colleagues in the industry. I am reproducing his email that was sent with the article: “Hey, Champ: Wrote this three days ago. Soon after my resignation. “They” won’t publish it. They don’t want to. They say it’s good, but now won’t return my calls now. Can you read it? And run it on Pak Tea House? And help me get the word out?” Many other media workers have been let down by the leading lights in the recent saga of BOL TV’s meltdown after the expose in New York Times. I support my friend Wajahat – at least he has the courage to admit his oversight, the candour to say it all. This too shall pass Waj. Raza Rumi The Article Nobody Will Publish: “We should have known, but we didn’t want to” By Wajahat S Khan wajahat3 I should have known. When Declan Walsh called me the Wednesday before the story broke, I should have known. When he questioned me and had the distinct privilege of making me feel awkward about my own institution, I should have known. When I called up one of my bosses and told him what the New York Times was working on, and heard a pause, and then a diffident “who cares, we will sue them”, I should’ve known. I should have known when I saw the flash, the cars, the protocol officers, the waiters and the chauffers. I should’ve known when I heard the carefully crafted, contrived American accents and emphasis everywhere: in the recording in the elevator that told me I was joining a global elite, in the human resource officers who were designated to provide me with a restaurant-level chef, in the photographer who would conduct my “branding photo shoot”, in the gym-instructor who would chisel me into shape for the big screen. Obviously, I misread the vulgar as the virtuous. I should have known better. When the hype of organizational self-belief became religious, then invective (Denunciatory or abusive language; vituperation: an orator known for his abundant use of invective.), then zealous, I should have known. But the confidence, pouring from the Axact gurus to the Bol executives to me to a thousand other colleagues, was contagious. This was an organization that had grown out of a back office in northern Karachi to cover a few blocks of DHA, I was told. This was an organization that represented the true potential of a modern, connected, online and tech-savvy Pakistan, I was told. This was an organization that I – a nobody kid from a middle-income broken home who was lucky and loud enough to attend a couple of good schools and persistent enough to ride the wave of broadcast journalism in Pakistan as it unleashed upon the national polity – would actually own, not just work for. I was stunned by the possibilities. But arrogance has a tone. Denial has a deafening silence. And mirages ( 1. An optical phenomenon that creates the illusion of water, often with inverted reflections of distant objects, and results from distortion of light by alternate layers of hot and cool air. Also called fata morgana. 2. Something illusory or insubstantial.) are self-constructed. I contributed to all three, in my three months at Bol. And played along with the best of them, because of where they came from, who they are, and what it all meant. First, denial: In an industry, which is in the business of compounding transparency, I am not the only one who has put on blinders while running the course over the years. Simply, denial is the price of survival in Pakistani media, nothing else. It’s not an excuse when I admit that like many other colleagues of my broadcast generation, I’ve had it pretty rough. Bol was my seventh channel in 12 years of broadcasting in Pakistan: Indus, Geo, Dawn (the last two I helped launch), Samaa, PTV Sports, Aaj and then Geo again (where I saw the post-Hamid Mir ‘ban’ take effect) had taken me, consumed me, and let me out on the streets like an angry, orphaned, urchin, toughening me up every time with a deep, hateful skepticism of the “private/electronic media” regime. 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. Personally, where else would I go? Print? Been there, done that, and still do. It’s static, if not deteriorating. Regional? International? Done those, too. They are limiting: CNN and NBC are relevant, but not locally inspiring. Twitter? A blog. No way. This is Pakistan, said the ego to the id. This is TV Land. And in TV Land we live, but by a simple rule: The story – except your own – must get out, at whatever cost. That was the oath impinged on our psyches. It was the modern Pakistani broadcaster’s dilemma: Do Tell Upon Others, Do Not Tell Upon Yourself. Thus, the “this is my job, this is my industry, this is what we do” instinct ruled, though only on the surface. So I learnt the hard way – and never shared openly, till today, though it’s no secret – that in Pakistan, you take the media’s fallibilities like a family disease: as a given, with resignation, never personally, rather only as destiny, but also never to be shared with outsiders. After all, we’re a family: a spiteful one with a fondness for fratricide, but we are one. Tell On Us And Be Banished, said the other rule. And so the backroom chatter remained in the backroom, even as we changed bosses and companies and editors round about the ever revolving door. From a boss who makes toothpastes and records sex-tapes on yachts, to a boss too closely tied to the judiciary, to a boss who cleaned the books for Arab sheikhs, to a boss who let editorial be underwritten by USAID and DFID programming, we tolerated – no embraced – that crucial, critical breach: the death of the Church Versus State / Management Versus Editorial divide. And then came Bol, red and white and glossy and gold. Even in its virtual reality, which we purchased almost like a fake degree because we were – are – so desperate, we saw a chance. Here was an opportunity that was presented by the best and brightest in the industry: Men I’ve known for over a decade, men I’ve wanted to emulate, mimic, sound like; my self-inflicted role models, gods of the newsroom, leaders of the field my generation has followed blindly into emergencies and clampdowns and gag orders and tear gassing and PEMRA wars and taken late night calls from GHQ and the PM Secretariat for. Men who inspire such confidence that when you’re “called” into Aabpara, you arrive, and not just show up, because you believe. Men who teach you, and remind the country through you, that truth prevails, and that it’s still worth something in Pakistan. Yet, these men let themselves down. They let me down. They let 2000 of my colleagues down. And they let down the country, too. Very honestly, I may have possibly helped them, and not only because I had my blinders on. There was ambition, too. The case being presented was as powerful as its famous presenters, the pioneers of Pakistani broadcast: That we will break the machine. That we will never take directives or late night calls from the overbearing father-and-son combines, from the vested patrons and the imperious security regime, but from our own kind: editors and reporters, producers and camera persons, leaders and best. There was promise, of course. That we will be paid on time, for a change. That we will go public, and have joint-ownership, and life insurance, and medical coverage, and a rainy-day fund, and a coffee machine that worked. That we won’t have to beg our flagrant and private jetting seths for a cheque that was due three months ago, because we are the bosses, now. We are the possessors, the creators, the true masters of an industry that runs on our risk, yet never rewards us. It was a big idea. Of course it was good to believe that Bol’s would be the generation that was going to conduct that modern, necessary triage upon that hemorrhaging, convulsing, cannibalistic Pakistani media. But our self-righteous ambition, our greater goal, made us self-destructive. We tried to conduct surgery on our self to cut away the unwanted bit. But we were one. And we remain one, faults and all. Yet we thought we were different. We were told we are different, by snake-oil salesmen we desperately tried to ape in their quick success, because we were determined, and hungry, and yes, inspired by the most righteous of our very own kind. It was a compelling sell, made by the time-tested warriors of the spoken and written word that I, for one, had sworn to believe in (and no, I’m not implying the military here, though I was never overtly encouraged or discouraged, by any martial quarters, who I tend to report on, in this regard). I was sold the mission by men who the industry, nay, the country was sold on for decades. And yes, the money wasn’t bad, either, though for the record, Bol was/is deeply, maybe even ineptly, top heavy. My books speaks for themselves. Thus, my follies: My due diligence was overshadowed by the bright promises made by my leaders, the best in the business, who were, perhaps, blinded by their own ambition as well as their well-intentioned drive to change the great game. And although my loyalty wasn’t worth my network’s master’s retirement plans or their armoured vehicles, my fellow Bol colleagues and I willfully carried on, through the taunts of even family and friends – that we were alleged “fronts”, or “projects”, or a “scheme” of underworld bosses, of military spooks, of property tycoons – because we wanted to believe that success, slick and polished and well heeled and hip, is possible, even for journalists. Soldiers tell me that being shot is a strange feeling. Even in a firefight, when you’re expecting it, there is a sting, then a burn, then a weakness, then a slowing down of speech and senses, then a general disillusionment, and then darkness. That’s about what’s happened since I read Walsh’s piece one week ago. As I read it again and again over the week, for its solid craft and its savage logic, along with the bevy of filth cum lucidity that it birthed on social and national media, I found the hyper-organized Axact and then the Bol configurations disintegrate. I sensed hesitation in the tones of my gods; I sensed their self-assuredness wilt away as their stubbles grew, heard their perfect oratory devolve into delusional harangues (1. A long pompous speech, especially one delivered before a gathering. 2. A speech or piece of writing characterized by strong feeling or expression; a tirade.). I sensed my once-aggressive reporters break eye contact, their backs hunched. I felt the five-star cafeteria food taste bland, and saw my fuel card stop working. Even the janitors seemed to go missing. As the structure crumbled and the conversations got more cynical, I sensed the machine – which was going to break all machines – breakdown itself. Communication, consolidation, camaraderie – buzzwords that were our core considerations– morphed into an each-man-for-himself scrimmage. I honestly can’t believe it, but resigning on Twitter, probably not technically legal, became a necessity, as our basic function – being public servants – was suspended by our disbelief in ourselves, even each other. In the end, our detractors were not our real or imagined partners or benefactors, nor frivolous colleagues or jealous critics, but our own bosses and creators and, yes, undoubtedly, even ourselves. We were naive, of course, but also motivated and thick-skinned, engaged in a tight, eyeless defensive crouch in fear of the all-consuming, thankless revolving door that is Pakistani broadcast media. And so, battle-hardened hacks but still pawns, self-declared false prophets of all that is wrong and unjust in this wasted land, we are on the street again. Yet, we will walk back through that door, as we still believe. But this time, it’s not our silence, but our embarrassment, that will lead us back in. Wajahat S. Khan is a former Executive Vice President for Bol TV who resigned his position on principle last weekend. He continues as the Pakistan Correspondent for NBC News. -------------------------------------- UAE residents caught in Axact fake degree scam Pakistani media company says claims are baseless, substandard, maligning, defamatory, and based on false accusations. Construction News . UAE residents caught in Axact fake degree scam University degree scam has netted company millions globally, says the New York Times. . Published: 20 May 2015 - 6 a.m. . By: Courtney Trenwith UAE residents have allegedly bought fake university certificates from a Pakistani media company accused of a global fake degrees scam that has netted it tens of millions of dollars. The New York Times has claimed in an expose this week that the company Axact, based in Karachi with 2,000 employees, has run a fake education empire that involved paid actors promoting fictitious universities and fake US State Department authentication certifications with the signature of US Secretary of State John Kerry. The company created a series of websites involving “professors” and students who were in fact paid actors and employees who would plant fictitious reports about Axact “universities” on CNN iReport, a website for citizen journalism, the New York Times said. Clients from the US, UK and the UAE were cited as having had paid sums ranging from thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars for their degrees, believing the universities were real and they would soon receive coursework. The NYT quoted former Axact employees and more than 370 websites of fake universities, accreditation bodies and other purported institutions. . Axact which is planning this year to launch a news channel named Bol and has already hired many of Pakistan’s top TV anchors and journalists, with reportedly the highest salaries in the market, used social media and its own website to deny any wrongdoing. A message on its website declared the story “baseless, substandard, maligning, defamatory, and based on false accusations” and added it would sue the New York Times. It accused domestic media rivals of colluding with the New York Times to plant a slanderous story in order to harm its business interests. =========================== KARACHI: A senior level former employee of Axact revealed on Monday that he worked from Axact’s Karachi office and was involved in luring in customers into buying degrees. Speaking exclusively during an interview in "Aaj Shahzeb Khanzada Kay Saath", former Axact employee Taha Jatoi went on to say that the biggest priority on Axact’s agenda was to rake in as many students as possible to sell online degrees to. He further revealed that all universities including Belford University existed only online and were operated from Axact’s Karachi office. Taha said that candidates had to give an exam before applying but this was only a formality. He went on to say that fake degrees were issued, stamped and attested by Axact Karachi office, and fake names were used. He said each agent had a university assigned to him or her, while he was responsible for the portfolio of Must University. Online education, online research and online design are three major departments of Axact, claimed Taha. He added that Axact provided thesis and essay papers to students abroad through the 'online research' section and this department mostly had young girls as employees. I Hussain Tuesday, May 26, 2015 The New York Times expose earlier in the week showing that Axact Technologies’ is not the ‘World’s Leading IT Company’ but allegedly a front for a massive fake degree scam was nothing short of sensational. If the NYT’s allegations are proven, then how Axact was able to operate its ‘business model’ in the fashion it did for more than a decade below the radar of Pakistani officialdom beggars belief. The company’s ascent seemed plausible enough as computer software and the business possibilities of the online world have created billionaires not only in Silicon Valley but also in India and China; Axact tapped into this meme by projecting itself not only as riding the new wave of technology but being at the very forefront of innovation. In other words, a Pakistani success story at the global level. The presence of an ambitious CEO only added to the halo around Axact since no one gets to be richer than Bill Gates (the Axact CEO’s professed aim) by being shy and humble. The naysayers who murmured their misgivings about all not being quite right with Axact were dismissed as conspiracy theorists driven by envy, who didn’t get how the world had changed for ambitious entrepreneurs willing to harness technology to achieve their globe spanning aims. In their follow-up editorial, ‘A rising tide of bogus degrees’, the NYT cites a source indicating that there are 3300 “unrecognized” universities worldwide. They also say that Axact is connected to about 370 education websites of which around 100 have been identified by the NYT as providing post-secondary school educational “certificates”. It would appear that Axact accounts for around three percent of the worldwide population of universities existing in name only – a significant if not overwhelming percentage. In revenue terms if we use the figure given by the NYT of over 50,000 PhDs being ‘awarded’ each year by these online ‘universities’ and if each PhD given costs on average $4,000 to the recipient then total revenues generated annually in this ‘segment’ are around $200 million of which Axact’s share could be around $6-$10 million if we assume it has a 3-5 percent market share based on the NYT numbers. How much revenue Axact generated from its online diploma platforms is of course moot but the NYT article cites a former employee claiming that Axact was generating at least $120,000 a day – or over $35 million annually (assuming weekends off for employees). If true, this is greater than the combined current annual revenues of two leading Pakistan based IT companies, Systems Ltd and Netsol Technologies as indicated by their financial statements. The profit margins must be staggeringly high since there are no expensive faculty on the payroll, no buildings and stadia to maintain and no direct or indirect taxes to pay since revenues are booked in tax-free locations such as the British Virgin Islands, Belize and Dubai where the majority shareholder (s) is based. Given that revenues are earned in dollars while expenses are incurred for the most part in rupees there is the strong likelihood that profit margins and overall profits have been swelling by substantial amounts since the rupee has been depreciating consistently against the dollar over the past several years. Aside from reports of boiler-room sales tactics, the issue now is whether what Axact is alleged to have done breached any criminal laws in Pakistan or in the jurisdictions where its servers are being hosted (if proved, the forgery of John Kerry’s signature and the US State Department seal constitutes a serious criminal offence anywhere). The matter, however, is not as clear cut as many may believe since what is unethical is not necessarily illegal. Thus if there were no boundaries between ethics and legality then we would undoubtedly find a large number of, say, used car dealers in jail. As far as university education is concerned some countries have strict guidelines. For instance in Australia it is a criminal offence to use the word university and claim to offer degree and diploma courses without governmental authorisation. Similar prohibitions apply in countries as diverse as India, South Korea, Malaysia, Germany, Switzerland and the UK. Pakistan, however, does not categorically make the use of the word ‘university’ by an online provider a criminal offence. What the HEC does do is publish a list of accredited universities and degree awarding institutions on its website. It is for employers whether in the public or private sectors to determine whether the degree-holder has a genuine diploma from a recognised institution of higher learning. The US position is somewhat ambivalent and is more or less a ‘caveat emptor’ attitude. Given that the provision of education there falls within the purview of state governments it is not surprising that there is no uniformity of approach as far as the requirements for accreditation are concerned. Some states such as New York clamp down hard on unaccredited universities whereas others such as California are fairly lenient letting the market decide the fate of myriad educational institutions. One can infer that the clients and patrons of shell universities are to a large extent willing to go along with the purveyors of fraudulent degrees and therefore cannot be entirely absolved of blame. Surely if there is no coursework, no home assignments, and no tests or exams to take then the person is only deluding himself or herself if they believe that they have achieved an educational milestone by purchasing a certificate. Most likely, the buyers in turn are motivated by rational considerations such as getting a better job or meeting some residency or citizenship requirement and try and achieve their goals by taking the quickest and, to their minds, cheapest route possible. The intriguing case in the NYT story is that of the Saudi man who reportedly spent over $400,000 (about Rs41 million) to get fake degrees. What did he aim to achieve in exchange for the substantial amount of money spent on worthless pieces of paper? A cabinet position? One doubts that it was on account of a sense of personal fulfilment since he could have gone to the Coursera or EdX websites to achieve his moment of bliss and that too at no financial cost since most of the large number of excellent courses offered by these two Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) providers involving the world’s leading universities are offered for free. Notwithstanding the question marks over Axact’s future prospects, the issue is whether we as a nation are going to do something about the rash of fake degrees in our midst – whether in politics, academia or the professions. This is where the government has to take the lead in legislation. However, given the number of parliamentarians who have dubious educational credentials this is about as likely as turkeys voting for Christmas. The writer is Group Director for Business Development at the Jang Group. Email: iqbal.hussain@janggroup.com.pk

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