Military on polls

Updated 06 Jun 2018

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WITH rumour and speculation still swirling across the political landscape, a media briefing on Monday by DG ISPR Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor may have helped dispel doubts regarding any delay in the holding of the general elections.

On behalf of the military leadership, Maj Gen Ghafoor congratulated the recently dissolved National Assembly on completing its term, expressed satisfaction that no electoral schedule — by-elections and the Senate polls — was delayed and reposed confidence in the ECP’s ability to hold the upcoming poll on time.

He also pledged that where appropriate and if requested by the ECP, the military could assist in the holding of elections. These remarks are welcome.

While it is important that the constitutional separation of powers be formally adhered to, the continuing public silence of the military leadership at a time when political gossip and rumour suggest anti-democratic forces are active may have been more damaging.

Now is the time for all state institutions and the political class to single-mindedly focus on the holding of an on-time, free and fair poll.

Yet, the briefing was not without controversy.

Revealing that the military is tracking social media for external interference and alleged domestic mischief-making to undermine the state’s national security priorities, the DG ISPR produced a web of ‘anti-state’ activity online.

To be sure, the security apparatus ought to track activities by external actors or domestic militants who are seeking to undermine the Pakistani state. A long war against terrorism, militancy and extremism is being fought in nearly every part of the country.

The influence of social media in shaping public opinion and the national discourse is undeniable. Only last week, the PTI reversed its decision on the selection of a caretaker chief minister of Punjab, citing social media feedback from the party base.

Perhaps, it would have been more appropriate for the military leadership to have passed on to the government the intelligence it has gathered on propaganda online aimed at undermining national security priorities.

If appropriate action is needed, it should be taken by the relevant, constitutionally empowered government department and not by an institution acting unilaterally.

Worrying too was the public identification of journalists, public figures and private citizens who are claimed to be involved, even unwittingly, in the dissemination of alleged anti-state propaganda.

Across the world, the destabilising effects of social media, online propaganda and so-called fake news are being witnessed. In more open societies and advanced democracies too, there is a growing recognition that unsuspecting publics are susceptible to manipulation by unscrupulous forces, ranging from the anti-democratic to anti-state.

In Pakistan, the problems are magnified because of a difficult regional security environment, an underdeveloped state and socioeconomic, political and religious fault lines. Far better, then, that a multifaceted problem be addressed by an inclusive institution such as parliament.

In August, the country will have a new parliament. The military’s concerns should be conveyed to the next elected government and a cross-institutional approach developed to counter anti-state elements.

At the same time, freedom of speech and association should be protected as one of the highest priorities of the next government.

Published in Dawn, June 6th, 2018