Pakistan’s military would be far better served in its public relations efforts by ignoring the instinct to be defensive, and instead accentuating its positive efforts at achieving peace in the region.
The News International, an English-language daily in Pakistan, reported this week that the country’s Military Intelligence (MI) has been collecting detailed information about journalists in a door-to-door canvassing operation raising troubling questions about media freedom.
The journalist Mariana Baabar described a questionnaire by a pair of MI officers at her home in Rawalpindi:
The questionnaire, amongst other things, wanted details of spouse, children and their contacts and activities. Contacts and details of brothers but sisters were not needed. The MI also wants to know which foreigners were the journalists meeting and what kind of information exchanged.
Details of cars owned and their details, bank account numbers and their details, tax return number, passport details, the list is endless.
A similar operation was carried out two months ago in Lahore according to journalists there.
The Director General of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the military’s official press agency, told the reporter that he would “certainly look into this matter as these kind of questions and seeking such information from working journalists is unnecessary,” but as yet there has been no official statement released on the ISPR website.
Another statement published on ISPR’s website, however, may offer a clue. On November 5th, ISPR published a statement by Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, warning that, “any effort which wittingly or unwittingly draws a wedge between the people and Armed Forces of Pakistan undermines the larger national interest,” and that, “while constructive criticism is well understood, conspiracy theories based on rumours which create doubts about the very intent, are unacceptable.” Gen. Kayani’s statement was widely understood to be in response to discussion surrounding a Supreme Court case involving election rigging by the military during the 1990s.
“Gen Kayani’s statement is as much aimed at assuaging his own khaki constituency as it is a warning shot at the civilians – media, in particular, plus the courts – who have gone to town against the army,” the source added, but didn’t find it “ominous”.
Pakistan’s media is well known to trade in unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, but this time it may be the media that finds itself the subject of a conspiracy theory. A sensational report in the Christian Science Monitor last year set off a wave of speculation in Pakistan about the US “[buying] out moles to further its interests in Pakistani media.”
The Trojan horses deployed among Pakistans media corps and sponsored by hostile powers have already begun paving way for unbridled information operations in line with the wishes of their employers. The US justification for buying out Pakistani journalist is that the US government is operating in an environment of misinformation where anti-US stories in Pakistan seeded by Pakistani security establishment are commonplace. Coming from the home of powerful media engines, like the New York Times and CNN, et al, who lead the campaign whenever Pakistan has to be arm-twisted in a skewered partnership, glibly quoting the CIA, State Department and the Pentagon sources, truly reflects an untenable and preposterous narrative.
Veteran Pakistani journalist Najam Sethi wrote at the beginning of the year about the fallout of these allegations – a growing trend in labeling Pakistani journalists as CIA agents. A few months later, Najam Sethi was broadcasting from a studio custom built in his own house after finding himself on the wrong side of similar allegations.
That the MI questionnaire includes information about contact with foreigners and bank account information suggests that someone in the military actually believes these allegations. That the canvassing is being conducted by MI – the agency responsible for military counter-intelligence – and not the Intelligence Bureau (IB) which is responsible for domestic intelligence raises another set of questions about who the military believes is paying journalists, and to what purpose. That they are openly collecting this information from large groups of journalists and not discreetly collecting information on select individuals suggests that the operation is intended to have a chilling effect – making any journalist think twice about reporting information that the military does not find flattering.
Pakistan’s media has already come under fire from another powerful institution – the nation’s judiciary – for producing unflattering reports about judges. And while Pakistan’s media is much more free than it has been in the past, freedom of the press is still severely limited by a Constitutional provision which provides for restrictions “in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, [commission of] or incitement to an offence” – a list broad enough to cover just about anything.
What is most unfortunate, however, is that this pressure on the media is both unwarranted and counterproductive. Unwarranted because a cursory review of Pakistan’s media reveals that it is anything but a hotbed of sedition. Counterproductive because the military has taken great strides in turning around its image in recent years by loosening its grip on civilian institutions while maintaining a high public approval rating (77 percent).
Pakistan’s military faces a choice similar to the judiciary: Enforcing restrictions on the media and being treated with respect superficially, or allowing legitimate debate and earning the people’s respect through their willingness to face public accountability. No military will ever be without its detractors, but by suppressing – or appearing to suppress – criticism, Pakistan’s military is actually fueling criticism rather than reducing it. Pakistan’s military would be far better served in its public relations efforts by ignoring the instinct to be defensive, and instead accentuating its important efforts towards peace and improved relations with India, and towards facilitating a sustainable resolution to the war in Afghanistan. This is the side of Pakistan’s military that can win hearts and minds, not spying on journalists.