Embedded with the military

Published: October 1, 2010
The writer is a Fellow with the Centre for the Study of Global Power and Politics at Trent University, Canada 

The writer is a Fellow with the Centre for the Study of Global Power and Politics at Trent University, Canada shibil.siddiqi@tribune.com.pk

Pakistan’s history is one of opportunities lost, with one exception: its military establishment rarely passes up a chance to undermine a civilian government. This is the overarching context of Pakistani politics. The recent meeting of the army chief, the president and the prime minister is the latest in this praetorian display. Though the substance of the meeting seemingly involved prosaic power plays by all sides, it has been portrayed in the media in the familiar binary of a patriotic army attempting to reason with a venal elected government. There is little critical discussion of the context of this carefully stage-managed narrative that has progressively strengthened the military at the government’s expense.

Since the present government took power, there have been a number of signposts along the road to military dominance. These have included the government’s failed attempts to assert civilian control over the ISI, the deep freeze in the India-Pakistan peace-process, and the hysteria the military whipped up around the Kerry-Lugar Bill.

The high-powered meeting came as the government was being raked over the coals over its dismal response to the floods. However, the cogs of establishment propaganda had begun turning prior to the disaster. Zardari was initially heavily criticised for refusing to cancel a trip to the UK after their prime minister made a remark sharply critical of Pakistan while in India. His lack of patriotic zeal was contrasted with that of the ISI chief who shelved his UK trip in protest. The problem with this narrative, according to a BBC report, was that the director –general was never scheduled to travel to the UK in the first place.

In this atmosphere of public contempt for Zardari, the floods quickly became the centre-piece. And certainly, the government deserves a good deal of criticism for being inert, while the army deserves credit for its relief work. But it betrays our jaundiced history when, in contrast to other countries, the military’s efforts are seen as independent of government action, particularly given that the army has a constitutional duty to “act in aid of civilian power”. Disaster relief also requires advanced logistical capabilities, which is why militaries the world over take the lead in the process. Further, the military takes one-third of the budget, accounting for service pensions that Musharraf’s government moved from military to civilian spending. It possesses the air-lift capabilities, boats and hovercraft that the anaemic civilian machinery does not. And the military budget remains ringed off even in these times of austerity measures and natural disaster. Therefore, even if the government had moved with political resolve (which, let us be clear, it did not), it is hard to say where it would find adequate resources to act resolutely.

Moreover, the military controlled nearly all access to the worst-hit areas, organising visits of domestic and foreign journalists. These forays produced heart-rending scenes. But along the way many of these reporters have forgotten that they have become embedded. Though restricting access and embedding journalists has been condemned in the context of military operations in Fata and Balochistan – the practice remains unquestioned in the context of the floods.

Certainly, a fundamental task of journalists is not to take even half a step back in presenting just criticism of any government, elected or otherwise. But news media must also adequately contextualise – a point amply made about western coverage of Pakistan, but ignored in domestic reporting. As importantly, in the words of Israeli/Gazan scribe Amira Hass, journalists must always “monitor the centres of power.” Failing in this vigilance risks that Pakistan’s news media will become embedded in the establishment, and turn into a mouthpiece for the powers that be.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 2nd, 2010.

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Reader Comments (6)

    Oct 2, 2010 - 12:47AM

    im MB frm pakistan sir help me i lost my every thing in flood. Recommend

  • ArifQ
    Oct 2, 2010 - 12:31PM

    Will become embedded? They already are, and its not just the journalist fraternity it includes all levers of society i.e., politicians, lawyers, judges, civil right activists, zamindaars, civil servants, business men etc etc.

    We have to understand and accept the superior management (manipulative) skill set of establishment, they have outfoxed many a charlatan, hoodwinked this country for a good fifty years and taken the mighty US to the cleaners for billions of dollars. Recommend

  • Ali Hassan
    Oct 2, 2010 - 12:58PM

    Indeed, Journalists and Media landscape in Pakistan are in its transition phase. It will take time to get mature and this maturity can only be happen when regional, community based, and e-media get its wings out from the nest. The fact can’t be ignored that Pakistani media moguls have successfully monopolized and tighten there grip over the nurturing of diverse media in Pakistan. Power brokers and power stake holders are part of the game.
    In Pakistan, as per my experience, it is “impossible” to be on the limelight without the blessing of Khakis. It has been made a requirement, a necessity, or to say in other words if journalist want to have “byline” stories, Scoop for their channel or NP they must have to contact the so-called unseen personnel. Once the game start they can’t leave and they will have to play by the rules define by the other “friendly” party. Recommend

  • Anoop
    Oct 2, 2010 - 10:41PM

    The situation in Pakistan has reached thus that you cant even commend the army without thinking of de-stabilizing the present government.

    Coming from India, it astonishes me the Army chief lecturing the PM and the President on to do their jobs. Army chief would’ve been sacked the very next day quite ungraciously if it had happened in India.Recommend

  • Babur
    Oct 2, 2010 - 11:57PM

    the governments performance with the floods has been extremely disappointing. but this is a very brave article to highlight problems with thinking that military is any better. military government was there for kashmir earthquake in 2005 and we know that it was not able to solve the problems. why should military continue to enjoy perks and privileges when the common man is suffering from budget cuts and austerity measures? why should pakistanis that are not military have to live like second class citizens? Recommend

  • Taimur Khan
    Oct 3, 2010 - 8:48PM

    There you go again Shibil Siddiqui – relentlessly ranting away at the military when a democratically elected governments performance is probably the worst possible governance this country has ever endured. It seems that criticizing the military has become ’embedded’ in your head and seems to be affecting your writing. It would do you good to get out of it and start writing some articles focused on how the civilian government and state institutions can be strengthened so that after every 2 years of dismal performance of loot and plunder everyone does not turn to the military to intervene.
    I would recommend that instead of just marginalizing the military’s performance in the floods as part of their job, kindly praise it as an institution that brings some form of organization in a government system that is completely inept. And also please stop equating the heroic efforts of the military personnel in helping flood victims or fighting the terrorists as just part of their duty, you laud their efforts in a country devoid of any other heroism.Recommend

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