Need to win media war

January 25, 2014


IN the strongest indication yet that the government may have decided that its chosen option of peace talks with the Taliban had run its course, the civil and military leadership met this week to look at operational measures to tackle rampant terrorism.

Of course any expectation of immediate action would be unrealistic as, sources say, first an infrastructure will need to be put in place which allows all terrorism-related intelligence and information of related efforts to be centralised and shared across the provinces.

Whether this takes the nomenclature Nacta (National Counter-Terrorism Authority) or a JIC (Joint Intelligence Committee) or something similar isn’t significant. What is important is the acknowledgement of the need to have a coordinated fight against terror.

At the same time, the capacity building of fighting forces, apart from the military and paramilitary units, will continue across the country and the recent approval by the Sindh chief minister of a huge, urgent spend to beef up the Karachi police’s wherewithal to deal with terrorism is part of the effort.

If all this finally points to an understanding on the part of those at the helm that a compromise with terrorists isn’t possible because agreeing to their demands would mean taking the country back hundreds of years, it is a positive sign to say the least.

All security officials will have busy months ahead and will need to ponder over how to effectively re-establish the state’s writ over parts of the country which are under the militants’ control — but to move ahead in a manner that civilians caught up in the conflict are evacuated and/or protected from any fallout.

At the same time, the intelligence gathering and sharing mechanism will have to be fine-tuned to contain any repercussions — for example, an even more ferocious bombing campaign in the urban centres by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to ease pressure on its sanctuaries.

Another big challenge for those planning and executing the operational plans will be the media. The last full-fledged military operation in Swat as well as South Waziristan Agency was also carried out in the glare of the media but there was by and large a consensus about its need and legitimacy.

All journalists will need to be constantly briefed and specifically the prime time news show ‘anchors’ will need to be mollycoddled as they like, possibly by the military leadership to keep them onside. This is imperative because the blowback from any action could be serious and the whole thing could last months, even a couple of years.

Also, unlike the Swat and South Waziristan operations which followed a broad-based political consensus, in the run-up to the last elections, and the government formation since, a lot of politics has been played around the issue of how to deal with this threat and what is causing it.

When national leaders, even with utmost sincerity, express such diverse opinions on an existential threat to the country, public confusion is not surprising. Once any action starts, all the national leaders will have to be on the same page. Those who fall fighting the forces of darkness will have to be owned by one and all.

The government will also need to factor in the inherent conservatism of some of our media stars. On cannot but recall their performance before and after the Lal Masjid operation. Many of them demanded that the state act to enforce its writ. The operation over, a significant number changed their tune. I recall one ‘star’ with considerable following saying he could smell attar-like scent from the charred corpses of the militants killed in Lal Masjid.

This isn’t to sing the virtues of the operation, which could have been better executed, but just to point out the critical importance of the ‘propaganda’ war. The sort of speculation, wild stories that followed in the media were not only very destructive to the anti-terror effort but could actually have served as an impetus to terrorism.

For example, it took so many years and a judicial commission of inquiry to establish that 92 ‘civilians’ (some, many of them armed?) and 11 armed forces personnel were killed in the operation. And not a single female student died. I recall a chance conversation with a manager, a local Rawalpindi man, working for a media organisation who complained: “Musharraf is very cruel. He has mercilessly killed 1,000 children of the poor including a large number of girls studying there.”

This view, as I realised to my horror on that trip, was widely held and the media did nothing to present all the facts to the public. Whether it was their conservative beliefs which pushed into the background the demands of their profession or simply that they tilted towards the one they perceived as the underdog, the result was the same.

It isn’t apparent if the government and the army are aware and taking care of this element. But, anticipating a crackdown, the TTP appears mindful of it. The recent TTP-owned murders of technical media personnel and threats to the media are aimed at intimidating their way to sympathetic headlines and coverage once the conflict goes full steam.

Recent pronouncements by the militants’ ideological allies/sympathisers expressing opposition to any action demonstrate that there is a coordinated effort on the part of the right to mould favourable public opinion. The challenge for all those opposed to the TTP and its allies’ toxic, hate-filled ideology would be to speak in unison and forget even legitimate grievances against each other for now. It’s going to be a long haul. Everyone hoping for peace and sanity will have to keep their nerve.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.