FOLLOWING an embedded visit to the terrorism-hit Waziristan last December, an Islamabad-based journalist broke a story about cracks appearing in the leadership of the outlawed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
Claiming an expected reshuffle in TTP ranks, the story predicted less future violence in Pakistan mainly because a dominant section of the Taliban hierarchy wanted their leadership to focus on the US forces in Afghanistan.
Despite quoting anonymous military sources and having a less than credible context, the story went viral for two reasons. First, the information was released by a credible international wire service. Second, media outlets understand that people in Pakistan eagerly await such developments which give them hope against the rising tide of violence. Therefore, the story was extensively covered all over without anyone questioning its dubious nature.
The Taliban spokesman issued a quick rebuttal: “Reports about the change of leadership is merely propaganda as we will fight till death under the same command.” Soon afterwards, a special video was released, in which the TTP leadership was shown exchanging greetings as a mark of solidarity.
In 1978, the Italian scholar Wagner-Pacifici declared terrorism a social drama after studying a social and political text related to the 55-day captivity, ending in death, of a former Italian prime minister, Aldo Moro.
A burgeoning electronic media in Pakistan handles terrorism no differently than what Wagner explained in the Italian context. Many of the over 40 current affairs channels appear to set the course for facilitating the militant discourse in league with sections of the print media to construct a serious public mood. The availability of an audience and its expectations provide perhaps the most critical variable in shaping both the decision to launch a product (discourse) and its content (news story).
How does the media do it? The answer to this question lies in defining the interests of a hegemonic state structure. In fact, military officials usually seek the media’s help in testing the waters. Therefore, embedded journalists are airlifted to the troubled zone, fed fabricated news meant to invite the enemy’s response.
Sometimes, feelers are put out through talk shows hosts, and the rest of the job is handed over to armchair analysts and writers. This is how institutional factors (both the media and military) undertake the production and reproduction of a discourse, largely revolving around militancy. Unfortunately, this top-to-bottom approach has less to do with the way this commentary is interpreted by the audience in their drawing rooms.
More importantly, the media’s selling of this militant discourse is not without human cost. For example, in order for militants to prove that their structure is still intact, damage and destruction become inevitable. The frenzied display of this tendency has its own distinctive timing and pattern. Sometimes, the Taliban onslaught begins soon after official overtures. More interesting, however, is the drop scene of this social drama, which unfolds in quite a patterned but tragic way.
Often after spells of ruthless and unchallenged Taliban attack, the government has to apologetically announce its readiness to hold a dialogue, which is usually meant to give civilians a signal that the insurmountable enemy is worthy of reconciliation.
Though not for the powers-that-be, this treacherous reconciliatory approach is highly upsetting for those traumatised people, who yet have to recover from a fresh wave of violence. Therefore, in the enactment of this social drama, deaths and destruction serve as a collateral outcome of the ongoing militant culture, wherein combatant stakeholders indirectly engage one another to test the limits of the opposing forces’ will and power.
Moving back to events of the last December, the Taliban leadership not only denied rifts in their ranks but also conditionally accepted the ceasefire offer.
First though, the militants were required to establish their position of strength. Therefore a fresh wave of dreadful attacks was launched. A number of people were killed after a Taliban suicide squad staged an audacious car bomb, rocket and gun attack on Peshawar airport.
Soon afterwards, another attack was launched in which scores of armed Taliban overran two security positions in the Peshawar suburbs killing two officials on the spot and kidnapping 22 others of which 20 were beheaded later.
The real victory for the Taliban came in the third attack, where a suicide bomber killed senior minister Bashir Bilour. The fallout from the attack was so huge that it compelled the provincial government spokesperson to admit that, “militants are capable of striking at will anywhere they want”.
Every time the political government accepts its inability to handle violent militancy in the troubled northwest, the top leadership of the security forces should share the onus of responsibility. But that never happens. It is the hapless political leadership that is mainly blamed.
This is partly because the hegemonic pro-military state power usually works in league with media moguls and together they generate an effective discourse, which diverts public attention from the relevant questions. That is why the national media usually highlights the Taliban’s strength to limit the focus on the weakness of the security command. This job is done so skillfully that institutional control on the production and reproduction of militant discourse has remained unchallenged thus far.
The burgeoning media outlets hardly question the pattern behind the apparent chaos. Why? In fact, public concerns about violence are a major source of profit for current affairs TV channels here. Therefore, the national media willingly feeds the grinding mills of violence by packaging and selling terrorism as a refined product.
Credibility is hardly an issue as long as the news product carries ingredients of drama, sensationalism, fabrication and, most importantly, institutional support. In this way, the media helps produce the culture of violence through manufacturing fresh militant discourse.
This practice becomes more evident whenever violence reaches its lowest ebb and the public is found recuperating from a terror spell. In this brief lull it becomes automatic for the media to manufacture news (i.e. in “staging dialogue events between military and militants”).
This in turn promotes militancy even with the talk of dialogue. This social drama has been going on for the last one decade, wherein civilians are dying in their thousands. However, no heads have rolled inside the security institutions that are largely responsible for the failed counterterrorism strategy in the country.
The writer is pursuing a doctorate in mass communications at the South Illinois University at Carbondale, US.