(Part 2 – Journalists and Generals)
Tracing the media’s inherent biases that are related to its structural efficiencies and/or deficiencies, I questioned the media’s use of language (English versus Urdu) in targeting, developing and exploiting preordained opinions among sectors of the polity and also presented evidence of how its family-owned nature allows for ‘personal’ agendas to be inducted into the national information mainstream.
For example, around the time I ‘got the call’ earlier this year from the Express Tribune to write a column, the death anniversary of the founder of Pakistan’s largest media group was running as headline news.
In every bulletin that ran that day on the country’s most popular television network, millions were reminded and updated about the religious ceremonies commemorating the founder’s demise. Thus, on a random day in January, a cult of personality for one of Pakistan’s most powerful media moguls was being propelled along with breaking news about Osama bin Laden’s latest audio recording and the national cricket team’s dismal performance against the Australians.
This ‘internal focus’ of the Pakistani media is another rare yet critical occurrence that needs to be studied. Often, this self-obsession also manifests itself through the clear political alignments and re-alignments of media houses with the different special interest groups and institutions that govern Pakistan: the establishment.
A case in point is the media’s complicated relationship with the cornerstone of the Pakistani establishment: the military, which is Pakistan’s feared ‘state within the state’ and most powerful and organized institution.
That’s right. Journalists and Generals. Working together. Advertently and/or inadvertently. Consider.
During the last days of the Musharraf dictatorship, the media took on the Army by leading the charge against the former general’s quasi-parliamentary government. Though he had effectively been its midwife, the media played a heroic Brutus to Musharraf’s praetorian Ceasar. While thousands scoffed at the bias, millions lauded this pro-democracy power play.
After Musharraf, however, the media warmed up to the military but through a different, more commercial dynamic. It readily absorbed a surge in the military’s public relations expenditure as billions of rupees worth of airtime was purchased by the Armed Forces on all mainstream channels during last summer’s Swat Offensive (when there were alarming reports that the Taliban were a 100 kilometers from the capital, Islamabad). This investment, along with carefully placed news stories about Taliban atrocities that were a product of trips ‘arranged’ by the Army for journalists to the warzone, compounded by an actual increase in terrorist activities across the country as the militants ‘overextended’ operations into Pakistan’s urban centers, managed to turn the tide in the media in favor of the military.
Suddenly, mainstream news channels that had been ambivalent at best about the war effort were airing patriotic songs and stories about the gallant soldiers of the Pakistan Army. Military funerals – never aired on national television before, even though the Army has been taking casualties for several years – were now being timed for live broadcast coverage.
Language changed too, of course; “militants” and “extremists” were now, unequivocally, “terrorists”. Not since the blitz of mainstream American media after 9/11 (which played a critical role in empowering the Bush White House to invade Afghanistan and Iraq) have I witnessed such a ‘pro-establishment’ editorial shift in media.
Although engaged in the conflict since 2001, Pakistan, it seemed, had finally gone to war.
Serving with one of the of the country’s premier media groups, witnessing this sudden u-turn was significantly more dramatic, even bizarre. Stories from freshly hired ‘defense connection’ correspondents were now leads. Our broadcast ‘run-down’ was dominated by ISPR generated briefs which we were made to assume had the highest editorial sanctions. And it wasn’t just us. The same pattern was being repeated everywhere else. From inside the media foxhole, it was quite a turnaround.
However, as Pakistan’s War on Terror evolves, the local media continues to change its focus as well, presenting its views through another lens. While cross-border drone strikes by the U.S. into Pakistani tribal areas bordering Afghanistan increase in frequency, the media’s support for the war effort in that theater of conflict is shifting, powered by what seems to be a wave of anti-American bias.
Is this editorial shift developing due to U.S. involvement in the affected area – a media-generated thumbs-down for disappointing America’s noblesse oblige? Watch this space for furthering that debate.