Ayesha Siddiqa is most famous for her 2007 book, Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, which took a deep hard look at the way that the military was entrenched in various aspects of Pakistan’s economy. As a former member of the Pakistani civil service and having held the post of director of naval research with the Pakistan Navy, as deputy director of Defense Services Audit, her data and knowledge of the establishment made her unique. A revised and expanded edition of the book has just been released, in which she has added a chapter on the military and its relations with the media in Pakistan.
We reproduce extracts of it here.
Managing the media, laying down the rules
Zia’s decade during the 1980s was a very oppressive period. This approach underwent a change in 2002 after Pervez Musharraf liberalized the media structure. The result was that, from 2002–10, 89 private television channels were launched and 26 foreign channels were given broadcast rights. In addition, 138 licences for FM radios were granted out of which 115 were started by 2012. There was a clear military-strategic objective behind it, such as building capacity nationally and internationally to compete in a ‘media war’ with India. The lesson learnt from the Kargil war of 1999 was the manner in which the Indian media had turned global opinion against Pakistan. The government also laid out an initial control mechanism in the form of the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) Ordinance 2002. Promulgated on 1 March 2003, the law was amended by the parliament in May 2005, with further changes brought about in 2007. Although the ordinance was never truly followed, both political governments and the military used the law selectively to influence the content of private media channels. Over the years, further restrictions have been brought such as ensuring that foreign channels could not broadcast more than 10 per cent content that was produced abroad effectively turning international media outlets such as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the Voice of America (VoA) into channels with a strong local flavour, particularly as far as news was concerned. In any case, the government’s Frequency Allocation Board (FAB) that allocated frequency to television and radio channels had predominant state representation, especially of military intelligence agencies that provided security clearance. Despite this, General Musharraf had a clash with the media in 2007 that could be attributed to the fact that a newly liberalized media structure did not entirely understand its limits at that time or were encouraged by friendly sources within the army that wanted to see the back of the general.
The thick layer of fear…
Probably conscious of Pakistan’s bad publicity, especially in the wake of the war on terror, there is little systematic analysis of the thick layer of fear that dominates the media. There is little critical analysis of strategic issues and, as pointed out by the author Steven Inskeep, of the reality that news stories or reports on strategic issues lack details. Surely, problems of accessing information remain a huge problem but there are other realities as well which were pointed out by Huma Yusuf and Emrys Schoemaker in their report on Pakistan’s media. The authors talked about the PPP government bribing journalists, but left out details of similar practice by the military. The omission might have been due to journalists not being forthcoming in sharing details. However, the report talked about the coercive methods used by military intelligence at times to silence critics. In order to build General Shareef ’s image, all the news channels ensured that any pointed criticism was edited out. Journalists fear the army, especially after incidents like the killing of Saleem Shahzad and the attack on Hamid Mir. While the former was tortured and killed, the latter survived. Reportedly, Shahzad received threats from the ISI for at least three years before his death in 2011. Mir accused ‘ISI within ISI’ for the attack33 before which he was also threatened. The Hamid Mir incident reignited tension and conflict between the media group Geo and the ISI.
The latter were extremely upset about the media house openly pointing a finger at the ISI and its chief, Lt. General Zaheer-ul-Islam. The government was made to lodge a formal complaint to PEMRA to shut down GEO for crossing a red line. Moreover, other means of publicity were used in support of the ISI chief, such as plastering posters in public places in major cities through out the country. Therefore, the claim by Geo’s Chief Content Officer Imran Aslam that the threshold of criticizing the military had risen is highly debatable, especially after what had happened to the channel in 2012. Geo News was threatened with suspension after it aired a song criticizing the military and its security policy in the wake of the US attack on Abbotabad to search and kill Osama bin Laden.
Gilgit-Baltistan, FATA, Baluchistan
Despite what some journalists might claim, the military’s image management exercise enforced certain red lines that the media is not supposed to cross. Given that the majority of media groups are owned by big business, most of whom have cases pending before the NAB, they tend to be mindful of sensitivities. Therefore, it was not surprising when smaller incidents such as army men thrashing a motorway policeman, who stopped them for speeding, was not reported by the media. While this was comparatively a less noticeable issue, bigger matters such as the killing of two men in Okara in 2014 or the maltreatment of some of the leaders of Anjuman-e-Muzarain Punjab barely received any media attention. But, one of the worst cases pertains to the media coverage of Baluchistan, a subject on which it is possible to find some random opinion pieces but very little reporting. As far as the political conditions in the south-western province are concerned, there is almost a total media blackout. Apart from the poor media infrastructure that did not allow locals in Baluchistan or in the tribal areas, the army’s sensitivity about coverage of the events and the situation in the south-western province or in other territories such as FATA and Gilgit-Baltistan was a major factor in the scant news reporting from these areas. Since the beginning of its war in Baluchistan during the Musharraf era, the army seems to have curbed coverage of the insurgency or of the ethnic politics in general that drives the war. The reporting of the conflict tends to present it primarily as a result of foreign intervention.