It’s a major military operation by any account with nearly 400 alleged terrorists killed and half a million residents of North Waziristan Agency turned refugees within a fortnight. And yet go through the newspapers and TV channels and you find more about one-year-old elections than a war being waged. What is the media missing? Barring a few statements and photo-ops relating to the IDPs, is the relative media silence on it a product of its indifference or the state’s media strategy about it?
There seems a conflict of interests of sorts in how the military wants its communications priorities to play out and how the political government wants its communications preferences asserted in framing the NWA operation. The government is passive about being in the forefront of information drive relating to the operation because they have to be accountable to both the opposition in the parliament and outside it, and to the electorate about fighting a war that may not be won even though you may have to claim you did. After all, the previous military operations were also ‘successful’ and yet the terrorism and Taliban problems persisted.
A military operation that displaces people and causes large numbers of casualties is always a hard sell and hence the government’s default position is to let its comparative silence serve as plausible deniability later if the operation is unsuccessful. This is the reason why the current government-sources information is all but restricted to how it is helping the IDPs instead of the fighting bit.
The military, however, in keeping with the tradition in Pakistan, has greater leeway in taking possible liberties with the narrative about the operation side since they will not be directly accountable for it to anyone really. Certainly General Kayani wasn’t, according to his former spokesman Athar Abbas. Additionally, it benefits from any reduced ability of the media to probe too deep into its actions that can have possible adverse fallout. It then engineers a reduced ability of the media to report by restricting access to not just the theatre of military operations but also to the IDP camps where possible so that information flows about damage and losses can be minimised.
According to Iqbal Khattak, who monitors issues relating to access to information and threats and violations against the media through Pakistani media watchdog Freedom Network, under this kind of media strategy both state and citizens lose in the long run because once the people start believing that either the government is lying to them or not listening to them, the trust deficit balloons.
“Primarily it is the government’s responsibility to lead the narrative. The current media strategy, restricted to allowing the military to limit the narrative to some enemy casualty figures, only helps to distort the entire endeavour because if the government will not help evolve meaningful narratives, then the people will do it on their own and this will be based on bitterness and anger rather than on logic and context,” he says.
A research on reporting of the NWA conflict by Tanqeed.org, an online research and analysis endeavour on contemporary Pakistani issues, links the quality of reporting with quality of sources. In the first fortnight of reporting of the military operations by English-language Pakistani newspapers data shows that sources coming out of the security sphere and the state account for nearly two-thirds of named and unnamed sources in the media. In other words, both the operation — and the reporting on it — come from the security establishment.
Muhammad Amir Rana, the Executive Director for Pak Institute for Peace Studies, says that narratives constitute a key element of the strategy for any military operation or war and there can be multiple narratives from the governing political leadership, military establishment, opposition parties, the media and even citizens. “The question is who should lead the narrative? In the case of the current military offensive, this issue needs to be viewed in the context of a country known for its civil-military tensions over political power and the military’s share in it. The government should have the lead in the narrative supporting the operation considering that both have the stated objective of stamping out the source of terrorism,” he says.
The problem is that both government and military are wary of the media whose coverage of operations in the past ended up being manipulated by the militants’ narrative that generated sympathies for the wrong quarters based on reporting that was not nuanced. “I think it’s not a state policy to clamp an information blackout on media. They are simply treading cautiously in the face of the media’s recent ability to oversimplify some issues and in some cases to even demonstrate irresponsibility,” Rana says.
How is the reporting of the NWA operation and the Swat operation different or similar in terms of sources of information, plurality of sources and quality of information? Haroon Rashid, veteran reporter and currently editor of BBC Urdu in Pakistan, says one plausible explanation of why there is restricted information about NWA compared to Swat from government and military sources, is that they themselves do not want wide coverage for it.
“This can be gauged from the contrast with Swat when both [military’s] ISPR and [government’s] PID conducted daily separate briefings to proactively provide information. This time there has been only one briefing by PID and two by ISPR in the first two weeks despite this being a bigger operation boasting a grander stated objective,” he says. Lamenting the decreasing pluralism in sources of information about a major military undertaking, Rashid says it almost appears that the government authorities don’t even want to see reporters in person. “The ISPR is simply sending out statements through email to media houses and they carry them virtually verbatim. This is passing for war reporting,” he says.
Khattak pleads that the big picture must be kept in mind when analysing how the media is reporting what is happening in Waziristan. “We must understand that the media’s own choices and capacities are limited when it comes to reporting the military operation. They can either go and report themselves, which they can’t because the media is restricted there, or they can embed themselves with the military. In the former instance they will have to risk the lives of their reporters in Waziristan in defiance of ground realities. In the latter instance they will only get restricted or same information that the military is putting out any way. So what is the media to do?” Hence the military being the sole and limited source of information about an operation the government doesn’t seem in charge of.
The author is a media analyst and media development specialist. He tweets at @adnanrehmat1.
Published in Dawn, July 4th, 2014