Managing perceptions and the media

Updated May 31, 2011


According to a confidential cable dated January 24, 2009, army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani “spoke candidly” to US CENTCOM Commander Gen David Petraeus about the US funding for anti-militancy operations in the tribal areas- Photo by AFP
According to a confidential cable dated January 24, 2009, army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani “spoke candidly” to US CENTCOM Commander Gen David Petraeus about the US funding for anti-militancy operations in the tribal areas- Photo by AFP

KARACHI: It is a testament to the new-found influence of the media as well as the American and Pakistani establishments’ concerns about its power to shape public opinion that a number of US secret diplomatic cables, accessed by Dawn through WikiLeaks, refer to efforts to “manage perceptions.”

Much has already been revealed about the disconnect between the public and private pronouncements of Pakistani politicians and government and military officials and their fears of the opinions they express to American diplomats coming into the public domain. But the recurrent anxiety about the media’s role is not limited to politicians and bureaucrats, particularly in the context of a society in tumult and a war against media-savvy militants.

For example, according to a confidential cable dated January 24, 2009, army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani “spoke candidly” to US CENTCOM Commander Gen David Petraeus about the US funding for anti-militancy operations in the tribal areas and reportedly told the Americans that “it was important to avoid the impression that the Pakistan military is ‘for hire’.” He was obviously reacting to the inflammatory representation put forward by some Pakistani politicians opposed to these operations.

Ten months earlier, according to another cable dated March 24, 2008, Gen Kayani had told US Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen that “statements in the Western press regarding the deployment of US trainers to Pakistan cast the army in a poor light.” While the Pakistan army chief “acknowledged the need for American assistance” he also “cautioned that it could not be publicised because it implied that the Pakistani Army was not capable of facing down the militant threat.” According to the cable, he then “emphasised that he needed Admiral Mullen’s help to ‘manage perceptions’.”

Gen Kayani also “mused” to Gen Patraeus about the “glorification of terrorism” in the Pakistani media, “particularly the pictures of dead combatants” and, according to the cable, expressed his opinion that “Pakistan needed press laws similar to those in the UK.”

Incidentally, a previously unpublished cable dated June 6, 2007, while discussing the crackdown on the media during the lawyers’ movement against Gen Musharraf, also speculated on the role of Gen Kayani in it. “One persistent claim - by government officials, opposition politicians, and journalists,” states the cable written by Peter Bodde, then Charge d’ Affaires at the US embassy in Islamabad, “is that senior military figures in the ISI and Military Intelligence, especially Director General of ISI Kayani are the strongest proponents of the media crackdown.”

The same cable also refers to Gen Musharraf admitting to then US Ambassador Ryan Crocker on March 24, 2007 that the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority’s (PEMRA’s) handling of the chief justice controversy had been “heavy handed”, “unhelpful and wrong.” Gen Musharraf had also intimated Mr Crocker that he intended to fire the PEMRA chief and hire a public relations expert “to help Information Minister Durrani better package the government’s message to Pakistan’s vibrant press.”

What is interesting to note is also the American obsession with their representation in the domestic media. Like other foreign missions, the US embassy regularly sends back to Washington extracts from commentaries published in the Pakistani press as well as their own opinions about them. But they also go out of their way to facilitate non-traditional ways to project a positive image. In a previously unpublished cable dated September 16, 2009, supporting a Pakistani media request for an interview with US First Lady Michelle Obama, then US Ambassador Anne Patterson noted that the interview would “serve to humanise and soften the image of the United States in a country where public opinion is often anti-American.”

A separate cable dated September 16, 2008, while discussing ways to develop Pakistan’s COIN (counterinsurgency) capability, makes particular mention of “Information Operations” to aid the implementation of CENTCOM’s “Security Development Plan” (SDP), apparently designed to help Pakistani law enforcement agencies hold areas cleared of militants. In addition to using unspecified “operations” to “counter the negative information and messages which appear in connection to the SDP”, the cable also calls for efforts to “plan and execute psychological operations in support of the SDP.” It is unclear from the cable what kind of ‘psy-ops’ are being contemplated.

Another previously unpublished cable from the US Secretary of State’s office dated September 3, 2009 discusses the “critical need to broaden terrestrial radio transmission and expand available content for radio programming in Pakistan” by re-transmitting the Voice of America’s (VOA’s) Afghanistan-based Pashto-language channel Radio Deewa through Radio Pakistan’s Peshawar transmitter and VOA’s Urdu programming through “a leased network of FM transmitters.” The cable asks the American ambassador to “press the GOP for final agreement on use of these transmitters without delay, including raising the issue with President Zardari and/or Prime Minister Gilani as necessary.”

The importance Americans attach to managing perceptions is evidenced by the financial deals they have signed with private media groups to broadcast programming from US government-funded mouthpieces such as VOA. At times, however, straight-forward public relations is replaced with harsher tactics involving threats of financial repercussions. In a strongly worded cable dated November 26, 2008 - and marked ‘Sensitive’ - the American embassy in Islamabad criticised the Jang Group for what it termed “consciously publishing and broadcasting false and inflammatory stories…” against not only US government policies but also a minority religious group in Pakistan. Citing specific instances of alleged sensationalism and claiming that the “utter lack of any journalistic standard or editorial restraint has now proven too much to overlook”, the cable recommended that the lucrative contract to disseminate the VOA broadcasts through the media group’s television news channel be terminated. It is not clear if the recommendation was ever followed up on.

For its part, a spokesman of the Jang Group, when contacted, denied the American allegations.

Nevertheless, the cable reflected the quandary that managing perceptions sometimes presented for the US government, which publicly espouses an unfettered media. “Their calculus is that we are more cowed by accusations of actively trampling their freedom of press than we are of tacitly supporting hate speech,” the US Embassy stated about the media group. “At what point do we [stop catering] to consistent, blatant hate speech and intentionally inaccurate and irresponsible reporting in major daily newspapers and a country’s largest broadcaster which threatens the safety of American citizens or US interests?”

Cables referenced: WikiLeaks #188670, 147015, 111138, 180281, 223606, 225316, 169980