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Media’s obsession with the military

November 29, 2012

– Illustration by Abro

ISLAMABAD: For much of Pakistan’s existence, the media and military lived separate lives.

The media did not comment on internal military affairs, the military establishment did not issue press statements on its matters.

All that changed in the 80s, when newspapers started to carry reports on closed door meetings of corps commanders.

Hot on the heels were press releases written by spin doctors at the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), to propagate the Afghan war, which ultimately led to an unintentional lowering of guard against the media’s inquisitive eyes.

And with every passing decade, the media has become brazen about its relationship with the military, so much so that for the last couple of years there has been an unusual spike in the reporting on the military.

Merely a whiff of military-related developments in domestic and foreign affairs leads to full-fledged stories.

Throughout 2011, media was awash with stories on the Memogate scandal. Every single move of the army high-ups was explained from a different perspective. The media hype had the public believing that the military would move in any time and wrap up the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government.

The Memogate saga reached its climax in December, 2011, when a story was reported about ex-DG ISI General Shuja Pasha’s secret trip to the Middle East to seek support for a coup against the Zardari-Gilani set up. The story was first carried by a British newspaper and then passionately reproduced in the country by all and sundry.

In October this year, right after the Malala Yousafzai incident, there was hardly a newspaper or television channel that did not speculate about a military operation in North Waziristan. In the end, nothing happened.

Most recently, this week, all newspapers splashed stories of Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani dismissing the need for a military operation in Karachi.

In reality, the COAS had been asked by a media person at the D-8 summit about whether the military was planning some action in Karachi, which the COAS refused to answer.There was no follow-up confirmation by the ISPR, but the statement was played up as a major development of the day.

Commenting on the unbridled interest in the military by the media, General (retired) Talat Masood, a reputed and well-known defence analyst, said it was due to a combination of different factors.

“Yes, it’s a legacy of the past when the military establishment had dominated and many believe it still dominates the power centres of the country, therefore, the media doesn’t miss an opportunity to report on generals,” he opined.Secondly, he added, there is lack of professionalism and maturity on part of journalists, who are either unaware of the issues or don’t want to understand ground realities.

“At times, I read and watch stories on the television about the military which absolutely don’t make any sense, but are being shown as breaking news,” he  said..

Above all, according to General Masood, it was the on-going cut throat competition among media houses to attract audience that made them report on affairs of the security establishment without any context.

“Who doesn’t not know that stories on the military will always make headlines in the country,” he reiterated.

On the other hand, veteran journalist, M Ziauddin, when enquired about the media’s obsession with the military, replied: “We have reached this stage, after 60 years, and it will take time before we can unwind the media from this obsession.”

He said initially only the foreign office would provide any necessary information about the General Headquarters, and that too in background briefings.

Mr Ziauddin said the responsibility to discourage this practice lies equally with the military establishment and media: “First, the military will have to be willingly to take itself out of the public domain, and then the media would have to stop unnecessary reporting.”

Meanwhile, a PPP member of the National Assembly, who didn’t want to speak on record, claimed that it was democracy that had brought this change.

“It is because of democracy and the parliament that you people (media) have picked up courage to talk about both deeds and misdeeds of the military generals,” he remarked.

The lawmaker was hopeful that with the continuation of democracy and strengthening of civil institutions the media hype which at the moment gets triggered with a simple statement by a general or ISPR would die down in the coming years.

“Once supremacy of the parliament is restored in real terms, other state organs will have to go back to their constitutional roles,” he said conclusively.