The Might (and Plight) of Pakistani Media (Part 2 of 3)

(Part 2 – Journalists and Generals)

Last week, I tried to connect the dots that line the burgeoning and anarchic landscape of Pakistani journalism.

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.

Also published with edited changes in The Express Tribune on April 22 as “The Evolution of Our Media – Part II” on

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31 thoughts on “The Might (and Plight) of Pakistani Media (Part 2 of 3)

  1. Such an impeccable, true, acute and dauntless write up can only come from one person, thats you Wajahat. Flawless purity.

  2. Pingback: Vulnerable Journalists in Pakistan? « Standardeviation82's Blog

  3. How can the Tribune be so irresponsible. This makes journalists vulnerable in a very scary way. What kind of action can be taken? How do you stop a Newspapers management from endangering your career? Don’t they call this plagiarism abroad? Wouldn’t the paper be liable for a law suit in the developed world? What can you do in Pakistan?

  4. At last, found a good piece of reading…impatiently waiting for next part….
    I liked most the systems approach you are taking to critically examine Pakistan’s most taboo ( in-terms of analysis) institution that is Media, itself
    Great work indeed!.

  5. Hey Wajahat, love the piece. I read them both side by side and while the original is firmly imprinted with your personal style and your characteristic panache, i do think the changes are somewhat pragmatic from an editorial viewpoint. I think perhaps the pattern that you note and the cult of personality merit a separate piece of their own. The reason I say this is at least for a reader like me with a broad understanding of the situation but not necessarily a working knowledge of the smaller, day-to-day details, those sections are at times confusingly tangential to the main body of the essay. Nevertheless, I’m intrigued by what you’re suggesting and would love to read more. You’ve been inside the belly of the beast for a while now and it is very interesting to witness you turning the lens inward, as it were. Great stuff!

    • Sorry Lit Agent, I’ve had my head up with ass since you sent me that muff stuff. Fantastic! But while I disagree with your point of view here (and I don’t know what you mean by ‘characteristic panache’, but I will take it as a compliment, the bottom line remains that you can’t take one example out, highlight another, make my veiled reference direct, and then put my name on it.

  6. Great one. I read the “edited” version on Tribune too. They have literally massacred it. Don’t you feel like writing one on this “editing” role of the media too? This practice is like putting words in journalist’s mouth and is outrageous.

  7. loved the trends, but dont you suppose editorial shift mainly depends on the changing scenarios…?!??!??the only question then remains is that who governs the status quo…its definitely not the media though i believe it can very well ‘be’.

    • Several, Khatmal. The fact the what was a pattern across the media was ignored and one particular organization has been singled out. That’s the big one. Another shortcoming includes not mentioning the “Cult of Personality” media organization at all in the edited version.

  8. It seems the Tribune heavily edited your piece taking things out of context and pushing their own political agenda. There goes the tribs credibility. Sad day for journalism

    • Thanks for your comment and concern, Tariq. One can only hope that the right context is upheld and displayed for every story and article, not just one’s own.

  9. A very pertinent and relevant piece Wajahat. Trying to understand and analyse the efficiency and organization of the Pakistan Army’s media wing (ISPR) can be very challenging during these turbulent times. Pakistani media has come a long way from the PTV days, and, harsh criticism for not efficiently supporting the troops during the 1971 war.

    Would you touch on the ‘Abbass’ nexus, or, do you think that would be too close to home, or, insignificant, when analysing the might and plight of Pakistani media?

    • Hey QT. Thanks for the encouragement. Yes, it is challenging. But “taking on” any particular individual/s is not the task at hand. The idea is to look at systems and structures, not actors real or perceived. That is the only way to diagnose the ailments of our Fourth Estate.

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