Turning on to the right path

Published: June 13, 2011
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The writer is an analyst and a former ambassador to Yemen, Nigeria and Italy

The writer is an analyst and a former ambassador to Yemen, Nigeria and Italy

The killing of an unarmed robber in cold blood, by a mobile unit of the Sindh Rangers, has rightly aroused public indignation. Their action was inexcusable. Those responsible should pay dearly for their crime. That said, two thoughts came to mind while watching the TV coverage of the incident.

First, blanketing TV screens with endless replays of the gruesome killing was perverse. What is there to relish in showing man’s inhumanity to man over and over again? All it does is prove that brute force — the law of the jungle — rules in Pakistan. But we know that already and frankly one more killing is but drudge. Or is it because many TV viewers are illiterate and violence in Pakistan is now the repartee of the common man, in other words, the only way he can communicate his angst? So heaping it on, besides being good for the ratings, gives the public the gore that it seems to want. One often wonders whether our channels realise that as sensibilities to pain decline, they will have to raise the dose of cruelty on view to gain attention.

Even on TV talk shows, nothing gets better ratings than two panelists fighting it out and if a flying saucer, glass or water accompanies their rage, so much the better. Just stirring things up, anchors seem to feel, is a reward in itself. They want the audience to get a kick out of their show even if it risks a kick in the teeth of a panelist.

The second impression one gets is that the electronic media has declared ‘open season’ on those in uniform and particularly the armed forces. For the first time in our history, they feel brave enough to criticise the army and emerge none the worse off for it. There is no trembling fear that the offending channel may be closed down on the morrow or the owners served with tax default notices, let alone lose their life or liberty. There is a sense, after all that has happened, that another Musharraf-like closure of a channel or the type of action President Asif Ali Zardari took recently against a sports channel is simply not on any longer. Such vengeful measures are far too counterproductive in a functioning democracy. Of course, the reassuring belief that the hyper-image conscious Supreme Court will back them may have a lot to do with it, notwithstanding the prime minister’s caution of contravening article 63 (not abusing the armed forces, etc) of the constitution. In brief, what the media seems to be saying is that we refuse to be cowed, enough is enough. We have had it up to our gills with threats and lashings, in other words, they are announcing that the worm has finally turned.

Whether true or false, such bravado is heady stuff for some. The media now jumps on every opportunity to give vent to its long suppressed bile, accumulated over decades of emergency rule, martial law, military dictators, truncated constitutions and pliable courts. One particular anchor dared anyone to try and cow him down. “We prefer to die on our feet rather than live on our knees” was his Roosevelt-like message.

Understandably, perhaps, the recent unexplained killings of journalists have provided an opportunity that the media has seized upon to hurl every kind of allegation, including a fair measure of abuse, insinuation, slur and innuendo against those in uniform. So much so that many now accuse the media of turning their newfound liberty into license. Friends in the armed forces are upset; they feel their critics can say what they want including a whole pack of lies while they perforce cannot respond in self-defence. They are worried that their image is being sullied at a time when only the armed forces stand in the path of the enemy and they are also genuinely exercised about the baleful effect such criticism will have on morale. So they are also at a loss to understand why something is not being done to prevent such criticism or, at least, to rein it in.

Of course, short of returning to censorship or issuing warnings and threats, there is little that can be done. Our slander and libel laws are pretty ineffective. And frankly, that’s just as well. Limiting press freedom or censorship only preserves and protects every horror of the prevailing norms of oppression. It creates delusions of freedom and democracy. It makes change bloodier and less productive. We have seen it in action under Ziaul Haq when too many good men were punished for calling a spade a spade and too many rewarded for hiding the truth. None of which would have been easy if the media had been free.

The armed forces, like all of us, have to adapt, which they can start doing by developing a thicker hide. Movements that are ongoing are for changing institutions, not to preserve the old ones intact. Change in the end is unavoidable. Nor should the armed forces necessarily think of themselves as victims. They have a choice either to bring about a change themselves or eventually to have change forced on them by circumstances. Perhaps it would be easier if they were to equate change with progress rather than with reform, which is never an easy exercise for the pre-eminent power in the land.

However, there are a number of caveats to be kept in mind so that change brings progress and does not get derailed. CS Lewis went into some detail on this: “We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be… If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”

In the context of this article and our prevailing circumstances, if one were to ask which of the two, the media or the armed forces, needs to change, the answer must clearly be both, although for entirely different reasons. The media needs to display a far greater degree of objectivity and sensitivity as well as a greater regard for the truth, in order to make a success of democracy. And the armed forces should realise that when it comes to handling criticism from a free media, they are not only on a different road but on one which is off the map. Both need to get their bearings right if they are to return to the right track. Unless the tracks are aligned, our locomotive is a disaster waiting to happen.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 13th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (17)

  • Omar Haroon
    Jun 13, 2011 - 9:14AM

    Quite a balanced and interesting article.Recommend

  • Jun 13, 2011 - 9:48AM

    Most of anchor are behaving as if they are, presumably, on the payroll of CIA and RAW.

    Or for the rating, they want to do anything or everything.

    Accountability is essential but abusing, degrading and disgracing institutions like Armed Forces or ISI is counterproductive.

    If anchor kept themselves on the same course, they will run out of steam, people will stop believing them and stop viewing their debates.

    Drama channels are showing excellent serials and people are opting to watch those slowly.Recommend

  • Hanif-al Lecter
    Jun 13, 2011 - 9:54AM

    And it seems the armed forces have declar­ed ‘open fire’ on civilians and partic­ularly the poor.
    You are protecting a system that is outmoded and outdated.
    Being a former ambassador of the Republic of Pakistan, please do the right thing.
    Lead from the front and secure for your fellow Pakistanis, the institutions of progress.
    Stop apologising for those who rule by the barrel and the bullet! Recommend

  • Mirza
    Jun 13, 2011 - 10:01AM

    The armed forces are paid servants of the Pakistani people. Their primary job is to keep Pakistan safe and safeguard its constitution, for which they have taken the oath. However, they have repeatedly failed on both accounts. In fact they have desecrated and mutilated the constitution for their own totalitarian power, committed multiple acts of high treason and broke the country. They have started each and every war and then surrendered without much fight. Being government servants they are not supposed to get involved in politics and against national interest. However, they have played havoc with their oath and constitution.
    People can talk about petty crimes of civilians, but the above crimes carry death penalty. These high crimes and treason cannot be confused with crimes which carry a small jail time. ZAB’s worst mistake was not to try the generals who had surrendered East Pakistan and committed atrocities and ethnic cleansing in East Pakistan. Ultimately he had become their first elected civilian victim. Unless the spread of this cancer is not controlled Pakistan would not survive. Recommend

  • parvez
    Jun 13, 2011 - 10:44AM

    Really liked your closing paragraph. Recommend

  • Aristo
    Jun 13, 2011 - 11:26AM

    With the changing wind and tides, not only the Pak armed forces but the Baboos (retired & serving) also need to evolve and change their Mughal era mindset. If they are going to resist the change like in the past, this time the 180 million will turn into Gog and Magog and will have the Pak elite for breakfast.Recommend

  • Nadeem
    Jun 13, 2011 - 11:31AM

    @Khalid Masood: Media is only reflecting Pakistanis’ 53 years’ pent up frustration with an army that thinks it is God, that tramples upon the constitution and hence the fundamental rights of the very taxpayers who underwrite the F-16s, the 7-series BMWs, the plots, the eye-popping personal prosperity of generals, admirals and air marshals. You can lecture the media the day Army agrees to have its budget transparently debated and approved in parliament by representatives of its paymasters (‘civilians’), or the day it officially shuts down its political wing, or the day it shuts down the militias it unconstitutionally supports and which are a cancer for Pakistan, or the day it stops setting our foreign policy and our national security paradigm, leaving this space for – guess who – the civilian paymasters who want the state to educate their children, to provide them health services, to provide them decent mass transport, to stay out of the way as they develop the private sector (the real engine for jobs). Mr Ambassador, you are outdated, outmoded. Happy retirement. Recommend

  • Sanjeev Jha
    Jun 13, 2011 - 11:50AM

    Good and sensible article, right diagnosis for a society which is in doldrums.Recommend

  • Qasim
    Jun 13, 2011 - 12:36PM

    Musharaff let loose the media jin; they are in mad-race with each other before learning to walk. Most anchors and/or self-proclaimed analysts, have had no formal education, training or exposure to journalism (forget responsible journalism). Almost all the talk shows are “dog and bear” fight spectacles for higher ratings, viewership and ad revenues. Only in Pakistan (and on electronic media), a doctor throws away his white coat and becomes an anchor on 4-5 channels. Regretfully electronic media does not find anything positive to project about Pakistan except perhaps for the (ladies) morning shows, which gives you the “all is well” impression. Rightly so, armed forces are on defensive for now but let us hope they do not deliver the killing-punch. Recommend both the media and armed forces ponder on the last para especially “Both need to get their bearings right if they are to return to the right track. Unless the tracks are aligned, our locomotive is a disaster waiting to happen.”Recommend

  • Jun 13, 2011 - 2:47PM

    Over-ambition can drive generals and anchors into nuts.Recommend

  • Explorer
    Jun 13, 2011 - 3:03PM

    Analysts and scholars like Hilaly should be asking asking the agencies to articulate their viewpoint and clarify on the issues raised by the concerned citizens. This is done in any functioning democracy as all institutions are accountable to the people. And the army and ISI have a lot to answer. But, strangley, Hilaly is using the media space to ask mediapersons to shut up and silence the debate on a vital issue that concerns the citizens. Recommend

  • IWriteURead
    Jun 13, 2011 - 3:27PM

    Very well-balanced sir! Recommend

  • kashif naqvi
    Jun 13, 2011 - 3:36PM

    mr hilaly say …….’image of the armed forces is being sullied at a time when only the armed forces stand in the path of the enemy’ This is again the kind of mentality that our armed forces has acquired. They must realize that they are not doing God’s work on this planet- so please come down from your high horses and stop saying that it is us ‘the armed forces’ that stand between the enemy and our total annihilation. Enough of this baseless propaganda. OBL, PNS mehran, killing of chechans, killing of journalist shehzad and now the ranger mess- all explicitly demonstrate that they are professionally incompetent and incapable of protecting the common man or the border of our country. It is is the facade that is now crumbling. Mr. Hillay, please stop protecting the armed forces. It is time to call spade, a spade.Recommend

  • Jun 13, 2011 - 4:16PM

    What the media is reflecting is a mass sentiment: ” Wh had enough of the khakis who feel accountable to none, are arrogant and incompetent.” The problem is not with the media. The military establishment better shape up and fast if it wants Pakistan to survive. That is the main issue.Recommend

  • Kami
    Jun 13, 2011 - 9:23PM

    Objective criticism is healthy sign in a democratic country; but it seems that very soon our media may feel trapped in a very risky situation once their valuable and intellectual input would be used against Pakistan by International community. Long Live Media, Hope Pakistan also long Live: so keep your arms up because some outsider would come to rescue this Nation on your call…Recommend

  • Nadeem ahmad
    Jun 13, 2011 - 11:04PM

    people thought that we have hit the rock bottom and we will rise from this state.but for pakistanis state of affairs, a new word must be added to the dictionary.Few years back before the arrival of the free media(so called),things were bad but not as bad,because now every weakness of the state is exposed in the name of freedom of expression.in a country where only 25-30% can read and write,electronic media has removed the physical barrier and now people have access to all the news and views.is there any code of conduct for the anchors.

    The important thing is that every institution should work within its limits.We need all the institutions.Recommend

  • Adnan
    Jun 14, 2011 - 12:11AM

    A very balanced analysis.
    However, the philosophical & rationalistic context of this article will be missed by the majority of readers as these words are too extinct in our academic upbringing. Most of us (as has become norm of our society will interpret in bit and pieces) and end up in commenting according to their own biases and prejudices.

    In the end for media, I must comment that judgements must be let to the people who are supposed to do this job.

    @explorer: All through out the cold war era non of the agencies clarified all the concerns raised by citizens and in our country (specially 179.45 ml conspiracist citizens of our country) we are expecting too much from agencies who are both at war internally and externally. Scandinavia I believe should be the ideal country for such questions. Though I agree that every one should be accountable for the act of crime in this country either it may be the crime of Libel, Slander, Coercion or suppression. No one should be above the Law and this can only be forced by the us (the citizens) themselves. Recommend

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