Journalist Zahid Hussain’s new book The Scorpion’s Tale is rather scary. It meticulously details the rise of militancy in Pakistan, not only in the tribal areas but in the settled districts as well. It recalls the horrors we have lived through, or rather read about — the surrender of soldiers and their beheading; the reign of terror unleashed by the Taliban on innocent citizens, as town after town fell to them.
Hussain’s book, unintentionally, raises the issue as to what the role played by private television channels was, when the army was conceding ground to the militants after encouraging them through a series of peace pacts designed to be exploited to the militants’ advantage. This is not to say that there was a blackout on reporting. What has been significantly lacking is a deeper scrutiny of the army’s double-game in the fight against terrorism. It has been left to a few English language publications, such as Newsline and Herald, to probe the dangers of such a game. The mainstream electronic media, on the other hand, has continued to mindlessly glorify the military.
There have been some exceptions. Talat Hussain, while at Aaj TV, did an excellent series on the army operation in Swat (in spite of being ‘embedded’) and Dawn News did an investigative series of reports on Pakistan’s intelligence agencies last year. However, by and large, the private electronic media has remained in awe of the military. The coverage of the recent devastating floods is one example where the army was enthusiastically lauded while the political leadership was projected as inept and uncaring. Though the commendable job done by the army — in particular the jawans — in the rescue and relief operation cannot be undermined, private channels presented these national duties as acts of total selflessness. They failed to inform audiences of two crucial facts: firstly, the army is an integral part of the government and, secondly, soldiers are paid for duties performed in aid of civilian authorities.
Similarly, in the case of WikiLeaks, there was a distinct difference in the approach taken towards the exposures relating to the civilian leadership and those relating to the chief of army staff. Television newscasters and anchors gleefully broadcast and discussed ad nauseum the revelations pertaining to politicians. The WikiLeaks reference to General Kayani’s meddling in political affairs was reported, but mostly glossed over. The ISPR clarification was given prompt coverage.
There is much in military affairs that needs to be investigated and put under a spotlight. From lack of accountability in the case of missing persons, for example, to the insidious role in the making and breaking of governments, the actions of the military provide enough substance for scrutiny and investigative reporting. This is a role the private channels, reaching the ‘masses’ as they say, have shied away from. It is left to the liberal section of the print media to challenge the holy cows.
Even when news reports of corruption in military establishments appear, they are rarely given the prominence that a luckless politician, under suspicion of malfeasance, is subjected to. The hounding of political leaders by the media is often relentless, while there is little follow-up of revelations of military misdemeanours. Dawn, for example, printed a report on September 25, 2010 quoting the auditor general’s report on irregularities in defence spending, which amounted to Rs2.5 billion. The report, submitted to parliament, detailed losses incurred due to unauthorised expenditures and various irregularities. However, this story, published on the back page, was not followed up. The silence of the electronic media on issues of corruption in the military is deafening, as they say.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 21st, 2011.