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.