Mutual respect

PR job for the defence forces should be gradually handed over to the defence ministry and its public relations wing.

M Ziauddin April 15, 2014
The writer is Executive Editor of The Express Tribune

Let us redesign a mutually respectful intellectual distance between the media and the military now that the latter is seemingly set on keeping itself within constitutional confines. The constitution does not designate any public dealing role for the military except, of course, the limited role of rescue, relief and rehabilitation in times of natural calamities and tragedies. Its constitutional role being essentially to defend the country’s territorial integrity one would like to believe, public exposure of the defence forces should be more on a need-to-know basis than the kind of total transparency demanded of public office holders, civil service, police and the judiciary.

Take for example media coverage of corps commanders’ meetings or the visits of the armed forces chiefs to cantonments, military installations and bases. There is hardly any public interest news value in such events. And if one went through the press releases issued by the ISPR after each of these meetings and visits, one would find that the texts don’t even differ in the placements of full stops and commas; what to talk of the language and the scant information contained in these releases. The public hardly gets educated about the why and what of the event, while media pundits get to interpret the meanings of the inane phraseology of the official press notes, causing further confusion among the public. And when you repeat this exercise again and again, you can hardly expect the general public or even the target audience to take seriously the occasional important strategic messages you would like to convey to them following a particular meeting or a visit.

It was, perhaps, during the reign of General Ziaul Haq that the customary intellectual distance between the media and the military was curtailed drastically because the late general had wanted the media’s active cooperation not only in what he had intended to do with a popularly elected prime minister, but later to also help him sell to the nation his decision to side with America in the publicly unpopular war against the then Soviet Union in Afghanistan while passing it off as a jihad.

Zia was great at manipulating the media owners and workers. He bought off many of them with newsprint quota, undeserved advertisements and lifafas. Newspaper titles mushroomed all over the country by the hundreds during his government but their print orders never went beyond a few hundred. Those that differed with him were punished ruthlessly and those that agreed with him were rewarded beyond their dreams. This was the period when we saw the growth of half a dozen newspaper tycoons — ‘genuine’ rags to riches stories!

Again, this was the period when foreign-educated youngsters fresh from Oxford, Cambridge, London School of Economics and a couple of top-rated US universities were subtly manoeuvred into the media profession. They were manipulated to sell Zia’s jihad and his own particular national agenda to the nation. Some of these youngsters were provided intimate access to the officer corps. The victims thought they were being afforded a generous peep into the mysteries of the GHQ because of their intellectual prowess, while the latter made very good use of their credibility to promote its own agenda of the day. Naturally, they became role models for many young journalists entering the profession at about this time. Indeed, the ‘glamour’ was infectious. The more a media person was perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be close to the ISI, MI or IB (the last one having become a covetous position for a favourite army retiree), the more his/her reports and views would be considered closer to the truth.

Now that things appear to be returning to normalcy in the country and the hyphen between civil and military relations is starting to disappear, with the latter learning to live within the constitutional limits, it is time we take a new look at the media-military relationship and evolve a new equation between the two, with both maintaining a respectful distance from each other. In fact, the department of ISPR, the public relations wings of Navy, Air Force and the ISI, should be gradually dismantled and the PR job for the defence forces should be gradually handed over to the defence ministry and its public relations wing.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 16th, 2014.

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nasser | 7 years ago | Reply

Can't agree less. In fact each time the commanders conference is held, the media appear to be waiting and praying it may end in something ominous for the government. This must stop!

Ali Pakistani | 7 years ago | Reply

I do not agree with the argument put up by the author.

First of all, it is the responsibility of the media not to be bias.

Secondly, you cannot support democracy just for the sake of democracy, without any meaning to the word.

I do not think it suits the editor of this paper to ridicule the press reports of the ISPR.

Especially, when your own reporters use mediocre language and the reporting is of even lower level.

And at least the public has NOT given YOU the mandate to decide, which news item is of interest to us and which is not.

We the public are still regretting giving the democratic mandate to our selfish leaders.

I would really like to ask you, what has democracy given to the common man in Pakistan?

Which democratic leader willingly made any sacrifice for the poor of the country?

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