The Pakistani state has launched its most serious attempt yet to retake North Waziristan Agency (NWA) of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and clear it of Taliban and Al Qaeda and dramatically reduce their strategic and tactical ability to hold the state hostage. Twin ground and air assaults are underway in a bid to re-establish the writ of the state lost to terrorists and over half a million refugees have poured out of the region to escape the blitz.
And yet open up the newspapers and tune into the TV channels and you find more news about Tahirul Qadri, Shujaat Hussain and Imran Khan than about what is happening in Waziristan. What mostly passes for reporting of what has been dubbed by the state as a ‘war of the survival of the state’ is the casualty figures of terrorists released daily by ISPR, the military’s media wing. Considering that talks with the Taliban has remained the dominant theme of the Sharif government for most of its first year and the fact that end of talks was not even formally declared before the launch of the Waziristan operation, what is the media missing?
Considering the extraordinary amounts of trivia the Pakistani media is capable of dishing out on any issue, it is unsettling how far from comprehensive coverage there is of the operation that is supposed to change so much in terms of the state standing up to terror without ifs and buts. Barring the few statements and photo-ops relating to the IDPs, is the relative media silence a product of its indifference or the government’s media strategy itself?
Narrative conflicts, narrow interests
There seems a conflict of interest of sorts in how the military wants its communications priorities to play out and how the political government wants its communications preferences asserted in framing the NWA operation. The government is passive about being in the forefront of information drive relating to the operation because they have to be accountable to both the opposition in the parliament and outside it, and to the electorate. A military operation that displaces people and causes large numbers of casualties is always a hard sell and hence the government’s default position is let its comparative silence serve as an insurance to plausible deniability later if the operation is unsuccessful. This is the reason why the current government-sources information is all but restricted to how it is helping the IDPs.
The military, in keeping with the tradition in Pakistan, has greater leeway in talking possible liberties with the operation narrative since they will not be directly accountable for the operation. Additionally, it benefits from any reduced ability of the media to probe too deep into its actions that can have possible adverse fallout. It then engineers a reduced ability of the media to report by restricting access to not just the theatre of military operations but also to the IDP camps where possible so that information flows about damages and losses can be minimized.
Says Iqbal Khattak, who monitors issues relating to access to information and threats and violations against the media through Pakistani media freedoms watchdog Freedom Network, this may all sound logical but both the state and the citizen lose in the long run because once the people start believing that either the government is lying to them or not listening to them, the trust deficit balloons. “You can’t win the war but lose the hearts and minds. Primarily it is the government’s responsibility to lead the narrative. They should engage the media and be proactive about information. The current media strategy, restricted to allowing the military to limit the narrative to some casualty figures only helps to distort the entire endeavor because if the government will not help evolve useful and meaningful narratives, then the people will do it on their own and this will be based on bitterness and anger rather than on logic and context,” he added.
Sources of information, sources of quality
Tanqeed.com, an e-zine aiming to promote critical thinking and reflection on contemporary Pakistan is undertaking an ongoing research into how the Waziristan operation is being reported by the media proves that the quality of reporting depends on the quality of sources. In roughly the first fortnight of reporting by English language Pakistani newspapers data shows that sources coming out the security sphere and the state are the ones most heavily cited. In total, they account for nearly two-thirds (68.8 percent) of named and unnamed sources in the media. In other words, both the operation – and the reporting on it – comes from the security establishment. Security sources account for the bulk of the coverage and are twice as likely to be cited than the next most popular source: the government. ‘Experts,’ which include defense analysts as well as US governmental officials, are also twice as likely to be cited than the residents of FATA themselves. The coverage continues to be slanted with secular, center-left parties largely been marginalized in the coverage. “The ostensible effect of the silence produced by the media of such critics has been to lend further credence to the idea, propped up by many, that secularism is only a western ideology that is tied to state violence,” notes the Tanqeed research.
“This silence is in keeping with the ideological binaries with which the English-language Pakistani media operates: religiously based parties who want to destroy the state or Islamize it vs. secular, pro-human rights pro-state groups that want to shore up the state. In this context, Islamist equals pro-militant equals religious equals anti-state equals anti-operation. On the other side: secular equals pro-rights equals pro-state equals pro-operation. Secular opponents of war find no grounding in this context and hardly cited or referenced,” it notes. The overall effect on the coverage is that while it refers to both civilian governmental and security sources, most of these sources are pro-operation. Meanwhile, the representation of those who are directly impacted by the army onslaught is slim (barely 8 percent).
Responsible reporting, responsive reporting
Says Muhammad Amir Rana, the Executive Director for Pak Institute for Peace Studies that narratives constitute a key element of the strategy for any military operation or war and there can be multiple narratives from the governing political leadership, military establishment, opposition parties, media and even citizens. “The question is who should lead the narrative? In the case of the current military offensive in NWA, this issue needs to be viewed in the context of a country known for its civil-military tensions over political power and the military’s share in it. The government should have the lead in the narrative supporting the operation considering that both have the stated objective of stamping out the source of terrorism,” he said.
The challenge, however, is that both the government and the military are wary of the media whose coverage of operations in the past ended up being manipulated by the militants’ narrative that generated sympathies for the wrong quarters based on reporting that was not nuanced. “I think it’s not a policy of the political and military leaders to clamp an information blackout on media. They are simply treading carefully in the face of the media’s recent ability to oversimplify some issues and in some cases to even demonstrate irresponsibility,” Rana added.
How is the reporting of NWA operation and the Swat operation different or similar in terms of sources of information, plurality of sources and quality of information? Haroon Rashid, veteran reporter and currently editor of BBC Urdu in Pakistan says one plausible explanation of why there is restricted information about the NWA operation as compared to the Swat operation from government sources, including both the political government and military leadership, is that they themselves do not want wide coverage for it.
“This can be gauged from the contrast with the Swat operation when both ISPR and PID conducted daily separate briefings to proactively provide information. This time there has been only one briefing by PID and two by ISPR in the first two weeks despite this bring a bigger operation boasting a grander stated objective,” he said, adding, “Even the reporters invited to these briefings were selected and fewer in numbers than earlier despite there being more media establishments now.”
Lamenting the decreasing pluralism in sources of information about a major military undertaking that is keeping the armed forces as occupied as they would in a war with another country and the impact this has on how it would be perceived, Rashid said it almost appears that the government authorities don’t even want to see reporters in person. “The ISPR simply sends out statements through email to media houses and they carry them virtually ad verbatim. This is passing for war reporting,” he said. He also noted as peculiar the fact that the other end of this information source spectrum – The Taliban – are themselves absent in sharing information and making statements. “During Swat, the Taliban spokesman was as regular as the ISPR spokesman in putting out information, which provided media the ability to contextualize the information and rationalize it through their own sources. Not so now. The Taliban are silent. [Spokesman] Shahidullah Shahid has simply disappeared,” Rashid said.
Khattak of Freedom Network pleads that the big picture must be kept in mind when analyzing how media is reporting what is happening in Waziristan. “We must understand that media’s own choices and capacities are limited when it comes to reporting the military operation. They can either go in and report themselves, which they can’t because media is restricted there, or they can embed themselves with the military. In the former instance they will have to take high risks to the lives of their reporters by sending them into Waziristan in defiance of ground realities. In the latter instance they will only get restricted or same information that the military is putting out any way. So what is the media to do?”
Boundaries of reporting, boundaries of fear
Despite the restrictions on media, how difficult is it to get information about the military operation in NWA? A senior reporter for Dawn newspaper who has been extensively reporting on the humanitarian aspect of this operation says increasingly no one is coherently speaking for FATA residents anymore. “Ignoring what government sources say, ask yourself what are the information sources in Waziristan and you realize that after the exodus of most of the journalists based there now there is no one with the skills and confidence to inform us of what’s happening there,” he says.
“The FR regions [provincial tribal agencies bordering FATA] have become the new reporting frontier. Getting information beyond them from inside Waziristan in particular and FATA in general is getting difficult with reporters, even those who come from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to report are too scared to even disclose their identities,” he said, himself requesting anonymity for the same reason.
When asked why are there humanitarian narratives about IDPs and their plight but virtually no information from IDPs about the operation itself, he said it’s the same fear factor. “People are scared. They refuse to come on record about Taliban or the military and their behaviors. Those who do are, in turn, not generally quoted by the reporters as they themselves are exercising self-censorship on information that they will not be able to back up, so they leave out details about who is killing whom. Journalists have shown me some mind-blowing videos but which they don’t share with even their own media organization because it will entail great risks to their lives,” he said adding that the military should realize that they need to not deal harshly with reporters as the military will need the media’s help to corroborate its assertions.
For the military and civilian authorities to assert state might against non-state actors their strategy should incorporate engagement of media to promote greater clarity in the narratives for development and state supremacy. A successful military operation may result in winning the war but losing hearts and minds. Without media support there cannot be lasting victories.
The author is a media analyst and media development specialist. He tweets at @adnanrehmat1. This is an expanded version of an analysis published in Dawn newspaper on May 5, 2014.
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