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Battles in the mediasphere; countering hard threats with soft image

Amid the buzz around ‘hybrid threats’, the role of the media has occupied centre stage

By Shazia Mehboob |
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PUBLISHED November 07, 2021

As the nature of politics and conflict evolves with emerging technology, a new buzzword has entered the lexicon of planners and strategists worldwide. Hybrid warfare, also labeled as fifth generation warfare by some, is a concept borne out of the blurring of lines between war and peace in a landscape dominated by sophisticated information and communication tools and techniques.

In hybrid scenarios, war is no longer declared. It is, instead, a seemingly perpetual and ever evolving process that can involve economic manipulation, diplomatic pressure, media propaganda, proxies and insurgencies, cyber attacks, and the managing of a nation’s civilian populace. In this new war-fighting concept, information technology becomes the prime weapon as adversaries look for options to pursue strategic ends just below the threshold of traditional armed conflict.

For Russian General Valery Gerasimov, “hybrid warfare combines military activities with the protest potential of the populations.” In his article ‘The Value of Science Is in the Foresight’ he writes that military conflicts that utilise principles of hybrid warfare confirm that a perfectly thriving state can, in a matter of months and even days, be transformed into an arena of fierce armed conflict and sink into a web of chaos, humanitarian catastrophe and civil war.

But even as the concept garners excitement, it is as yet ill-defined in the realm of conflict studies, referring to the use of all manners of unconventional methods as part of a multi-domain war-fighting approach. These methods aim to disrupt and disable an opponent’s actions without engaging in open hostilities, prompting some experts to also call it ‘grey-zone’ warfare.

The strategy in building capacity

Projecting a soft image may have remained vital throughout most of history, but for Quaid-e-Azam University Assistant Professor Dr Muhammad Nadeem Mirza, its importance enhanced since the start of War on Terror, especially for the states with a Muslim majority. “Pakistan’s adversaries have been trying for a long time to exploit the cleavages - economic, political, ethnic, social, civil-military, provincial and sectarian - within our society,” he said, adding that political instability has further exacerbated the situation.

He pointed to the rampant use of fake news by Pakistan’s adversaries in order to sow the seeds of discord within its society and distort the state's image abroad. “EU Disinfo Lab's report about Indian involvement in distorting Pakistan image, spreading fake news about it and efforts to impact the mindset of general populace in several states underscores the clear intentions of Pakistan's adversaries to isolate it and present it as an irresponsible state which cannot be trusted upon,” Dr Nadeem explained.

“India has been involved in hybrid warfare against Pakistan for the last 15 years,” said a PhD scholar at Quaid-e-Azam University Islamabad who specialises in hybrid warfare and requested not to be named. He identified four areas that are mainly being targeted: “the civilian population, religious minorities, ethnic groups, and media, particularly social media are being exploited,” the scholar pointed out. On a question regarding the media’s role in hybrid scenarios, he said that information is a currency in fifth generation warfare and the entire world system runs over it. “Information technology, particularly digital technology, is the centre point of attention for Pakistan’s adversaries.”

Though legacy media has an editorial policy and control over dissemination of fake news, the scholar noted that social media is a ‘factory for generating fake news’ that dominates the information system. “A single piece of fake news has the potential to crash any country’s stock market, not to mention seriously dent its soft identity,” one expert maintained.

“It is not a war, which is fought on borders, but a war of capacity to use or misuse information technology against adversaries,” pre-eminent senior journalist Muhammad Ziauddin shared, adding that the state that holds command over information technology wins this war.In hybrid scenarios, there is a need to realise that you cannot deny the technological superiority of your adversary. What you can do is to enhance your own technological capacity to counter or attack it,” he explained.

Vibrant media, hybrid scenarios

While there has been concern that an independent media creates space for hostile forces to implement their agenda against Pakistan and sabotage its image abroad, media practitioners insist that an independent and powerful media is strategically important to mitigate potential threats of hybrid warfare to the country’s political, diplomatic, economic and security interests.

An anchor and security analyst based in Islamabad said an independent and vibrant media is vital for any democratic society to promote its soft identity. With the advent of social media, it has become even more important to support an independent media, he stressed. “Only an independent media can deal with the hybrid threats more effectively by bringing facts to the public. Also we need to be careful in differentiating between a genuine critique and fake news. Authorities seem to now even view objective criticism through the lens of hybrid warfare or consider it as fake news. This is something we must avoid,” he added.

According to the analyst, the proposed Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) is nothing but an attempt to suppress independent media. The government through this proposed media regulator in reality wants to strike at its critics, he argued. “Therefore, if it comes into effect the proposed media regulatory body would be detrimental for the freedom of press in Pakistan. A weak and vulnerable media cannot effectively deal with hybrid warfare. Only a credible and independent media can deal with such threats more robustly.”

There is no point to put extra burden on the media on the pretext of mitigating hybrid threats, said senior journalist M Ziauddin, adding that it is an attempt to restrict media against exposing their wrongdoings. He said the state actors should understand that the real issue is not the media but our lack of information technology capacity as well as fake news.They should understand that there was no role of media in the recent hacking of the FBR website and an attempt of hacking Prime Minister Imran Khan’s mobile phone, but our technological vulnerability against adversaries,” he pointed out.

“Our history tells us that when there is a war, media definitely goes with the state, but there should be a red line between what is in the state’s or state actors’ interest, because exposing state actors' mistakes is a media responsibility,” M Ziauddin added.

Another journalist who covers cross border conflict, said the media’s role is to report all pros and cons of society or state because highlighting both aspects is essential for development. “Now the question is how those reports are misused by hostile countries to damage any country’s image. It is the state’s responsibility to evolve a strategy to counter the efforts of hostile forces, instead of telling the media to not report,” he insisted. “It is clear the term hybrid war itself is sometimes misused by states that lack vision to curb media freedom.”

The power of culture

Culture encompasses all stratums of the society as well as having interlinks with almost everything from environment to education, health to basic facilities, business to technological development, politics to governance and from heritage and interfaith harmony, said Anum Farooq, an international educational practitioner and artist based in the UK. It would almost be impossible to find an aspect which is not related to culture. Thus, it is imperative that an accurate portrayal of Pakistan’s ‘soft image’ is communicated globally, she said.

“If we think of the vast heritage and rich culture of Pakistan, these aspects are really magnificent to establish our soft identity abroad but not a lot in the international community know about it,” she pointed out. The UK-based educationist and artist says it is imperative that Pakistan takes charge of the reins, and show on the global stage what truly encompasses the heart of Pakistani national culture, adding that the media role in this regard has a great significance.

“In the modern world, many nations succeed due to their ‘soft image’,” she added. “If we think of the leading states of arts, culture, academia, innovation and forward thinking zeitgeists, what countries would you think of Canada, USA and British etc? Have you ever thought about why? Primarily, it will boil down to their ‘soft image’.” Furthermore, the strengthening of Pakistani culture as well as empowerment through it needs to be key. The voices of children and young people are indispensable, and are crucial for future strategies, Anum stressed.

NIFTH Executive Director Talha Ali Kushvaha says strategic importance of media in building Pakistan’s soft image cannot be denied. “Whoever controls the media, controls minds, and this is what countries in the world, including India, is doing. If a country like India, involved in serious human rights violations not only in Jammu and Kashmir but in many other Indian states, could establish its soft identity through its cultural industry, why not Pakistan, which is blessed not only with rich culture and ancient heritage but tourism potential,” the NIFTH executive director said.

“The collapse of the health system during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic has badly exposed the Indian governing system, but yet the world doesn’t comment much about it, because it is heavily investing in its cultural industry to capture the world's minds.” It has reserved its entire Rajasthan region for cultural promotion, he observed. “Inflation, unemployment, and social ills are grave in India but yet they are known as a democratic country with a huge potential industry because they have linked up their identity with their old culture and heritage as well as established themselves as custodian of the sub-continent culture and heritage.”

Pakistan and Indian both got independence in 1947 but they have succeeded to build a narrative that Pakistan broke the sub-continent into parts and forced Pakistan to take defensive positions, Talha said. “The world is in a state of cultural disaster, including Pakistan, and everything is being done through proper planning. There is a need to identify all-inclusive and utilize Pakistan’s real potential which is its youth. What Pakistan needs to do is to strengthen national narrative and improve communication and technological skills and capabilities to mitigate hybrid threats.”

The pangs of national identity

Religious freedom has always been jeopardised and under threat in Pakistan and that’s why we are not able to promote a soft image of the country abroad, said Peter Jacob, human rights activist based in Lahore. "We need to work a lot as a country, as a society to be able to exercise that soft power that Pakistan deserves to build as a country of this size and magnitude and GDP deserves a better place,'' Jacob added. Following these characteristics, our flag deserves more respect and prestige in the international community, the Human Rights activist said.

In modern day, states very much rely on soft power that they enjoy besides the hard power. The soft power is about how much not only prestige you enjoy, but also alliances you can make and enjoy the diversity of those alliances because international trade has to be diverse in most of the countries. This soft power is somehow affected and impacted by the kind of impression that a country carries about its education, value system, practices, rule of law, its heritance to human rights, and protection of the vulnerable communities.

So whereas Pakistan because of history however doesn’t enjoy a good reputation on several things be it its banking scams, be it money laundering, be it performance on international commitments, and that is why the development indicators that international organizations collect Pakistan is not placed at its very good ranks.

As far as religious discriminations is concerned, of course every country is being scrutinized nowadays whether it media and international forums wherever it is expressed because it ranks those countries. The people at large for instance visit a country at large during and for tourism. Pakistan is one of the countries striving to attract tourists from abroad so these things constitute soft power, including the liberty that you feel on the streets of the country. Their liberty to dining out, laugh and sing, those things are subject to their freedom. Following these characteristics, our flag deserves more respect and prestige in the international community, Peter Jacob maintained.

The point of attention

The future of the inter-faith relations will be very much characterized by the justice system because the minorities in this country are too small and they are unable to form a formidable response to any injustices so it has to be the state and majority people who will have to take the initiative to make this relationship even and fruitful and result oriented that people belonging to minorities communities can show their talents and can use their full potential to contribute to the society and national economy, Peter pointed out.

It is to mention here that the Supreme Court of Pakistan in a suo moto case in June 2014, on a letter received from a non-governmental organization regarding attack on a Church in Peshawar, in which 81 persons died, had ordered federal and provincial governments to take measures in the following areas. Seven years have passed since the SC passed the orders, but yet only few percent works could be done in this regard. This correspondent, in order to get update on the establishment of Special Police Taskforce (SPT) for the protection of the worship places of the religious minorities approached the federal and all provincial IG Offices under the respective Right to Information Laws.

None of the IG offices, except IG Office Sindh, responded to the information requests under the RTI law. According to the documents received from the IG Office Sindh, the summary for funds has been pending in the provincial finance department for many months and when it gets approval the measures will be taken in this regard.

Dos and don’ts

Experts in different fields are in consensus that states across the world adopt strategies to mitigate implications of hybrid threats and Pakistan needs too. However, they think that the use of the media as the first defence line is dangerous and would leave long term implications on Pakistan’s image in the world.

A PhD scholar, specializing in hybrid warfare, at QAU, Islamabad said the state should remain vigilant for hybrid threats but it should prepare itself for the potential challenges the advent of artificial intelligence and bio-technology is likely to bring in the next few years. Dr Muhammad Nadeem Mirza, Assistance Professor QAU, says “It is important now that Pakistan should adopt a proactive approach in order to address the issue and try to match its adversaries in projecting its soft image while at the same time countering their nefarious designs through empowering its media industry. The first step in that direction would be to put your own house in order and address the cleavages within the society, he suggested.

Senior journalist M Ziauddin said there is a need to understand that not every criticism is a result of external factors but of internal wrongdoings and discrepancies. The state actors involved in evolving strategies should have to take the media in confidence and have confidence in media to mitigate challenges of transformed media.

He said if something get published critically it doesn’t mean that every criticism is planted by adversaries but they need to introspect.

The state, instead of curbing media independence, should keep the media on their right side. It should engage media practitioners and policy makers through regular briefing on the evolving security environment rather than pushing them against the wall, M Ziauddin suggested.

It will be our failure if the state uses the media as a front defence line. The thought that the state can mitigate the challenges of hybrid warfare through a controlled and vulnerable media is harmful to the state. Media can be a factor but it cannot be used as the first defence line, the senior journalist maintained.

"There are two propaganda tools that are important in modern days; education and media," NIFTH Executive Director Talha Ali Kushvaha said If we want to utilize media with its true potential to expose the malicious design of adversaries against Pakistan, we need to employ media experts to propagate Pakistan's perspective in the world.

He said that we need the most sophisticated media regulatory body with qualified media actors to spread Pakistan’s narrative to the world rather than increasing media vulnerability through strict policing and regulations.