A Delusion of Infallibity?
Pakistan’s most popular TV channel has taken a direct hit at the ISI. True to its form, the ISI has struck back, demanding a ban on the channel. Is this really what Pakistan needs?
The nation must unite and for that to transpire, sensational allegations against state institutions must stop.
Tensions between Pakistan’s civilian government and the country’s armed forces seem to be escalating at a break-neck speed. The animosity, though not always explicit, comes at a time when neither side, especially the civilian command, can afford it. Peace talks that have been accorded second chances, more than twice, are still in the works with no resolution in sight. The state remains weak and dithering for clarity while its citizens are targeted regularly. The militant narrative has gained increased space in the public consciousness, courtesy the wide coverage accorded to it, partially due to fear of attacks on the media but largely due to a shameless race for high ratings. While the frequency of militant activities reduced, the 40-day ceasefire initiated by the TTP failed to bring a complete halt to militant attacks, prompting serious concerns regarding the ‘loose affiliation’ of groups under the TTP banner and raising concrete questions regarding a military operation to safeguard the integrity and future of the state.
Against this backdrop, the civilian government seems to have been more pre-occupied with establishing its superiority and command over the Army rather than focusing on the real issues of national security that plague the nation. Pursuing the politically motivated trial of General Pervez Musharraf, the PML-N federal government blatantly and categorically rejected the general’s application against putting his name on the Exit Control List (ECL). Publicly terming Musharraf a ‘traitor’, vilification of the former COAS, and by extension the army, ensued in the media.. As a result, severe discontent began to brew in the army ranks. There is no doubt that the media has established itself as a powerful fourth estate but it fails to act like one. Devoid of objectivity, the media now serves as an opinionmaker in a country that remains impressionable, nevertheless. There is also no doubt that the military prefers to control the narrative. Though under General Kayani, and now General Shareef, the military has maintained a
somewhat non-interference approach in politics, it does still prefer that the state play by the military rule-book.
General Sharif, cognizant of military sentiment, met with the Prime Minister to express the army’s disapproval of the handling of Musharraf’s trial and to discuss a safe passage for the general’s exit. In a rare show of decisiveness, Prime Minister Sharif rejected the demand and Musharraf remains in Pakistan today, unable to visit his ailing mother in the UAE.
While the PML-N government, politically motivated by its need to seek revenge from the general who deposed it in 1999, may be terming this a triumph of democracy, it seems to forget that now is not the time. Despite the government’s obsequious attempts to appease the militants, very few in Pakistan are expecting the peace talks to succeed. In the likely event that they fail, the Pakistan Army will become the only institution that the country will rally behind. At a time when the Army requires public support to boost its morale in what seems to be an unending war against militancy, the government seems to care little.
Perhaps emboldened by the government’s bold actions and the need to establish superiority, the media exploited its own position to add salt to the wounds. On April 19, Hamid Mir, a prominent anchor at Geo (the biggest private media group in the country) survived an assassination attempt in Karachi. As Geo News went into editorial overdrive, within minutes, Mir’s brother (also a journalist) appeared on the channel claiming that Hamid Mir had received threats from the ISI and had informed family and friends that Director General ISI, Zaheer-ul-Islam, should be held responsible in the event of any untoward incident. For hours the channel pounded the ISI and as pictures of the DG ISI flashed on the screen, a GEO TV analyst demanded the public resignation of the ISI chief.
Geo News has carved a sensationalist reputation for itself. To not only level an allegation but to also issue a verdict lies far beyond the ambit of the media. As public outcry emerged, many channels and analysts accused Geo News of indulging in irresponsible behavior that could have a far-reaching impact on the Pakistani state. Intoxicated with the influence and power it wields, the media in Pakistan has become an unchecked, irresponsible beast. While accusing the ISI of believing it is above the law, the media too has deluded itself into believing that it is infallible. Lacking an ethical code, it relies on sensationalism, hungry for higher ratings.
As the fire burned, the government conspicuously remained mum, refusing to throw its weight behind the army and issuing a catagorical admonishment of the drama. Though the interior minister termed it a ‘slanderous campaign against state institution’ the premier made no statements. This is no surprise though. Prime Minister Sharif has remained vague and largely quiet on the issue of a military operation against militant hideouts, prompting many to accuse him of being an ambivalent and indecisive leader. Again he refrained from taking a strong position on the media coverage and commentary against the ISI, allowing the matter to snowball into a major crisis. Ironically, the one time Sharif has been vocal and decisive has been over the issue of the Musharraf trial. Some circles believe that Sharif’s decision to stay silent on the ISI matter stems from his own desire to see the military and intelligence agencies be taken to task, even if by a seemingly irresponsible organization.
The ISPR issued a prompt notice praying for Mir’s recovery and stating that an independent inquiry must be held immediately, “However raising allegations against ISI or head of ISI without any basis is highly regrettable and misleading.” Against the backdrop of the allegations, COAS General Shareef visited the ISI headquarters, perhaps to send a strong signal to the civilian government, informing it of the strength and power the two organizations wielded together. As public opinion against Geo News reckless and accusatory commentary intensified, the Ministry of Defense issued a defamation notice to PEMRA asking for the cancellation of the media group’s license over its baseless and malicious reporting that both disrespected Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency and “harmed national interests.” Geo News has been banned in certain government and army offices and has been pushed further down on cable providers’ lists.
The matter seems far from settled. However, the ban on Geo will most likely not be supported by the media or political parties, prompting yet another collusion with the military. TV channels have criticized Geo News commentary following the attack on Hamid Mir and have thrown overwhelming support behind the ISI’s arguments, perhaps hoping to bring down its strongest rival. However, a ban on a popular news channel will be seen as a strong infringement of freedom of speech. Censorship like this will undoubtedly attract more international attention and outrage. If the ISI succeeds, news channels united against Geo News must remember that in the future, they too will be prevented from exercising freedom of speech, as they know it now.
Pakistan is facing a far greater national security crisis that requires urgent attention. There is no time for irresponsible and malicious practices by the media, whether conducted independently or at the behest of certain “high-level” orders. In this scenario, the nation must unite and for that to transpire, sensational allegations against state institutions must stop. In the same breath, censorship curbing freedom of expression, and bans against the media are no solutions to a crisis either. Make no mistake - it will backfire on both camps. The writer is Managing Editor, Strategic Studies at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad.