THE world over, the media and the military have never had an easy relationship.
In Pakistan’s case the issue is more than usually complicated. The military wants favourable coverage of the several military operations undertaken in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata, but reporters have difficulties dealing with their uniformed hosts.
Gen Pervez Kayani’s visit to Swat some time ago highlights the issue. Local journalists were informed about the visit on May 22, and they rushed to Bari Kot where the army chief was inaugurating a bridge on the River Swat.
What followed, however, was irritating. Only 10 journalists were allowed to attend the high-profile event, which the rest found unacceptable. Eventually, journalists left the venue, leaving their cameramen to cover the event. The token strike continued for a couple of weeks until an ISPR official regretted the incident.
This was not the only incident of its kind. Other incidents have ended in violence. Last September, some army personnel allegedly thrashed a private television channel’s reporter as a result of which he ended up in hospital with head injuries. This was followed by a three-month boycott by journalists, which ended after an army official visited the local press club to mend fences.
Traditional interventions such as these as may work, but the security forces have yet to learn how to handle journalists professionally and responsibly. As a Swat journalist told this writer with reference to one event, “Journalists were issued special passes only after repeated requests, and I felt quite embarrassed when a soldier at a check point threw away my pass and told me to go back.”
By and large, militaries feel ill at ease when media personnel are around. During the Iraq war, the US military embedded journalists in tactical units; the experiment was considered a success.
In reality, however, the US military came out smelling of roses mainly because embedded journalists had compromised their professionalism. ABC Pentagon correspondent, John McWethy, told The Washington Post: “Riding around in a tank is a fun, but you don’t know … what’s going on.”Embedded journalists sacrificed journalism to reportage and thus the major stories of the Iraq invasion were the ones such journalists missed out. Wide knowledge about the absence of weapons of mass destruction may well have changed the course of the war had the journalists been free.
While the concept of embedded journalism is generally considered a black chapter in the history of the military-press relationship, it has firm foundations — though in a different vein — in Pakistan.
Over the last decade, the military establishment has linked accessibility to conflict zones with the issue of journalists’ safety and, hence, assumed control of conflict-sensitive reporting. Selected groups of journalists are taken to the militancy-hit areas where they work in a controlled environment.
The country’s media outlets took to the concept mainly because ‘information’ obtained this way was cost-effective and served the national security narrative. Journalists too have been ready to avail themselves of the offer. As one Peshawar-based journalist working for a large television channel put it: “Only a fool can afford to skip free chopper rides and the hot food offered on such trips to Fata or Swat.”
Yet the issue, in and of itself, is dead serious. Military ‘tour operators’ who accompany journalists on such trips are sometimes so disciplined that they want journalists to deliver no less than 100 per cent. This can cast a pall over the entire exercise.
A correspondent for an international news network commented that “the operators follow journalists everywhere and don’t hesitate to snub them if they’re moving off the beaten track. I once violated the norm by publishing a balanced story, and since then I am not taken on any embedded assignments — the only available window to see Fata”.
Last year, the ISPR took a group of journalists to South Waziristan to brief them about development projects undertaken in the conflict-hit areas. Unexpectedly, one of the district correspondents expressed doubt over such claims. This led the accompanying official to rush towards the reporter, saying: “You seem to be a friend of the terrorists.”
The local media fraternity has developed its own vocabulary in this situation, repeatedly mentioning off-the-record sessions to make others realise the way the military and militants bar journalists from carry out their professional duties.
Free media access to the conflict zone is globally considered a threat to national security. This misperception has led militaries to cobble journalists and soldiers together but conflicting interests have always kept this relationship in a flux. “When their aims brought them into conflict,” says media expert Michael Sweeney, “the press lost most of the battles because journalists, after all, carries notebooks, while soldiers carry guns.”
In Pakistan, too, military officials confront the same problem, though at a less intense level. The more journalists show their readiness to compromise their independence, the more they are expected to retreat from professionalism. The end-product is always a bitter experience.
Given all this, the uneasy media-military relationship is not going to deliver despite growing ties between journalists and militaries everywhere. Historically, militaries have successfully kept a lid on information. But things have changed now and thanks to technological advances time and space barriers have been breached.
In Pakistan, as elsewhere, this revolution has weakened the grip of the status-quo forces, which have been controlling the public’s right to know. It is time for journalists to assert themselves and prevail over traditional power centres that want to maintain institutional supremacy by controlling the flow of information at the cost of civil liberties.
The writer teaches at Peshawar University.