Internal and external threats - do media matter ? | Hilal

September 2014

Those readers who wish to skip the dubious privilege of reading the whole text of this reflection are well-advised to take a gentle leap to the concluding paragraphs for a response as uncertain as the implications of the question posed in the title .

For the unwise, let us proceed in search of the route to a potential answer.

Due to the enormous differences in the nature, the variety and the numbers of media; due to the predominantly private, independent status of the ownership of hundreds of media and the news and opinions they project; due to the scope for differing interpretations - --which could be equally sincere even if they are at variance with official views --- of the actual internal and external threats, the role of media in this context is variable and volatile, not singular and similar.

Unlike coverage of sports, music, drama and mundane, day-to-day events, the coverage of aspects of internal and external threats requires a comprehensive appreciation of multiple factors. These include the inter-dependency of some or all of such multiple factors , a recognition of historical determinants, contemporary cross-currents, national, regional and global dimensions of these threats , and their repercussions for the future of Pakistan.

Unlike the pre-occupation of the news media with the immediate, the visible and the audible, the approach to confronting internal and external threats has to identify what is truly important, what is not necessarily fully or partially visible, or even audible, or indeed silent . These attributes of threats qualities do not normally attract the relatively narrow focus of event-centric news media.

Non-news media such as cinema feature films, educative special interest media that focus on subjects such as Nature, science, history and entertainment, are also relevant. Subtly, by degrees, or even openly and explicitly, without being restricted by the immediacy of news events, such general media can integrate into their content facets of threats that deserve the attention of their respective audiences either on a permanent, long-term basis or periodically . Such general media do project material related to threats.

Diversity and numerosity of media :

The diversity of media determines the basics of reach. The human sensory faculties that each medium requires has a bearing on how the content is received. To begin with, silent, wholly visual media such as posters, wall-chalkings ,leaflets, still photographs are self-explanatory ( sometimes selective and confusing but so obviously in-your-face) require only the eyes to create messages within the mind. At the next level, there come printed newspapers, magazines and books which require literacy and a modicum of education to comprehend non-visual content. Even though radio is universal and transcends geography and distance with sound alone , knowledge of the dialect and language being spoken is essential to absorb the content by voice alone. In an age in which TV has regrettably become the dominant mass medium requires, on the face of it, the least mental effort. TV viewers are like virtual zombies. They are fed, especially by news media, with a mind-numbing combination of moving picture, sound, frequent breaks, distractions and diversions to make the sensational into the significant and to push the substantial to the sidelines.

Cinema films, specially those which oblige the viewer to physically remove themselves from their immediate homes or offices and become part of a socially shared experience in a darkened auditorium (as distinct from cinema films seen on DVDs on a TV screen at home), compensate for the spoon-feeding combination of moving picture and sound normally offered by TV. Cinema theatres require a crucial aspect of inter-action with others and with the inherently deeper scope that the cinema medium offers compared to TV, the mind is freer to reflect and to accept by conscious choice rather than by the brain-washing conducted by TV, such as on a person strapped into a chair by force ! Of course, without physical straps, a TV viewer can always switch-off the TV set and be liberated from the menace just as a cinema viewer in a theatre can simply walk out of a hall. But all things considered, the cinema medium in either fictional feature-length form or in fact-based documentaries is a distinct and potentially superior medium to TV. No wonder TV channels rely so heavily on cinema films !

Books with their profound silence remain the single-most ideal form of conveying and possibly absorbing content that is most pertinent to aspects of internal and external threats . No voice, sound, picture, advertisements and mid-breaks intrude and disrupt the connection between the writer and the reader, between the message and the audience. One is referring here to readable, credible books based on serious research or springing from genuine talent and expressed in language with clarity and respect for the intelligence of the reader, not couched in predictable terms and phrases but offering something new and engaging for the reader. The fact that in Pakistan many even well-educated Pakistanis, some of them occupying the highest public offices, civil and military, do not appear to be regular readers of books and are never photographed sitting in a library while reading a book (!) does not reduce the relevance and importance of books as an essential medium to convey messages on internal and external threats.

When we consider the private and independently-owned nature of media and alongwith this, the content of such media conveyed by either their own full-time staff or by freelance contributors, the first feature that requires note is whether the media in question are owned by individuals or organizations that are exclusively dependent on media alone for their livelihoods. Or whether the elements that own one mass medium e.g. newspapers also own TV channels, FM radio stations, etc. If they do so then their cross-media ownership interests have an impact on the content of the different media within the same group. For instance, the newspaper of a multi-media group will rarely, or never ever, make a critical or adverse comment about the content of a TV channel owned by the same group. Indeed, the same newspaper will publish every single day, sizeable advertisements promoting the programmes of the TV channel or FM radio stations owned by the same.

When owners of media are also owners or major shareholders of enterprises in other sectors e.g. cement, sugar, paper, chemicals, imports, exports, etc. then such cross-sectoral interests often shape the news and editorial policies of the media owned by the same elements. Thus, presentation of material that is in the vital public interest regarding say , a specific economic threat to the country that may exist in a particular industrial or commercial policy of the State is unlikely to be covered in that cross-sectoral media ownership context because of the conflict-of-interest , not because of disloyalty to the country .

To some extent, the unhealthy aspects of the narrow interests of some media owners is offset by the content contributed to media by freelance, external persons who have their own individual perspectives to offer, unaffected by the material interests of media ownership. However, here too, except in some cases, a media outlet tends to offer its space and time to only those freelance, external contributors who are in general tandem with the owners' own policies. As most media owners tend to be, either de facto or de jure, owners as well as editors / content-controllers it is only in one or two instances where Editors / content controllers are empowered to be independent of their employer's own interests or views in projecting content.

Billions of new media :

With the advent of the Internet in the past 15 years and the exponential growth in the use of cell-phones and smart phones that bring all media into the palm of a human hand at the touch of a button, social media represent an entirely new phenomenon in relation to the subject of this comment. While the conventional media are a large part of the content of social media, be this through Youtube, websites of traditional media, music, etc., individually-generated content on a mass scale has created an unprecedented scope for information, misinformation, disinformation with regard to internal and external threats. Through blogs, through the websites of hate-mongering outfits and violence promoting criminals, through the hazards of hackers and the cacophonous noise of a million analysts on every single subject, the presentation of material about internal and external threats in a calm, coherent, reasoned form of communication and of mutually respectful dialogue on subjects as sober as internal and external threats has become a formidable challenge, responses to which are neither instant, nor easy nor conclusive. We will have to learn as we proceed.

Wide range of threats :

Internal and external threats are also as varied as are media ! The intricacies of media are matched by the complexity of such threats. Within the territorial frontiers of Pakistan in 2014, we face the poison of sectarian extremism, religious extremism and intolerance by some of non-Muslims; the indiscriminate, destructive acts of terrorism; attempts by some elements to advocate secession from Pakistan; criminal mafias that deal with theft of land, water, public property and indulge in conduct of smuggling; production and sale of counterfeit goods e.g. medicines, or drugs and narcotics; easy and mass availability of lethal weapons, with and without arms licenses. Keeping in step with this sordid array of internal demons, and while being both the causes and the results of other flaws such as nepotism, corruption, mis-governance, misuse of democratic systems to perpetuate self- interest make for a pernicious spectacle of looming threats. There is then the harsh reality of mass poverty, deprivation, hardship and injustice suffered by tens of millions of the disadvantaged people of our country. The pain and the oppression imposed on women , their high rates of maternal mortality , the disturbing rates of infant mortality and of stunted children due to malnutrition : these are acidic burns on the complexion of our society and embody , along with the shoddy condition of the majority of Government schools , the most insidious internal threat to our security and stability .

Is it tragi-comic that in the realm of religion there is lack of consensus in society , leave alone media , about the unreligious insanity of faith-based extremism ? Take, for example, the reaction to the assassination of Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab who simply called for revising the blasphemy laws to make them more harmonious with the compassionate and tolerant fundamentals of Islam itself. When his own guard cold-bloodedly shot him, the reaction of large numbers was more supportive of the callous, ignorant, misguided fanatic than of the caring, well-educated and progressive Governor. Two terrible signs of how widespread is this virulent form of threat became evident when a former Chief Justice of the Punjab High Court volunteered to defend the killer and lawyers and others showered flowers and praise on the criminal. Such conduct changed this danger more into a popular treat rather than a threat to the mass !

As a society and State, we are regrettably not content with declaring Ahmadis to be non-Muslims. Some elements , often with the silent support of the police and many others wilfully attack the homes of Ahmadis in which human beings are still alive as well as even the graveyards of Ahmadis to desecrate the dignity of the dead. Despite the fact that 97% of our population is Muslim, we have yet to address all the legitimate concerns for the safety and the rights of the small 3% of our population. The majoritarian mind-set of the 97% pervades the mind-set of the media, with only a few notable exceptions. Both media and many parts of society pay lip-service to non-Muslims in Pakistan but in practice, render little service to them.

Media should desist from providing the kind of coverage which terrorists and extremists cherish. For instance, frequent and continuous coverage of barbaric killers brandishing weapons, particularly shown repeatedly in “loops” during news bulletins and talk-shows to illustrate their presence. Without intending to do so, TV news channels end up lending a kind of perverse glamour to these savages with potentially terrible influence on tender and impressionable minds, almost being seen by some as role models who are given so much attention by media.

In the zeal with which most media and some segments of society support democracy and the rightful claim of the civil, elected, political process to be the pivotal force in Pakistan there is a tendency to tolerate widespread corruption, particularly by individuals at the highest levels of the State and the political party leaderships on the ground that because corruption is a timeless universal, human malaise, it is more important to simply ensure the continuity of democracy and the regularity of elections rather than to enforce impartial, even ruthless accountability across the board.

The state of the economy , it's level of productivity , competitiveness , capacity to offer gainful employment to the millions of youth entering the labour force each year, the confidence, or rather the lack of it of the country's own investors in their own economy , the flight of capital , the value of currency , the equity or inequity in the distribution of fair opportunities and of wealth , the willingness of citizens to pay due taxes instead of starving the State of revenue ( and then whining about the State's failure to meet all the needs of citizens ) : singly , partly or holistically together , the economic threat is also inter-twined with external economic factors such as aid, loans, sanctions , credit ratings et al .

Perhaps the most corrosive internal threat , which is also part of a larger planetary crisis , is the way in which we ravage , degrade and despoil our natural environment in the pursuit of development and progress . Our soil , our land , our forests , our water , our air ,the myriad species of flora and fauna , the depredation of receding mangroves , our imbalanced growth of population ---- this disregard for the beautiful bounties and balance of Nature become the backdrop for the pollution and contamination of the built environment that we construct.

External threats comparatively less :

External threats to Pakistan are well-known. Commencing with a large hostile neighbour to the East which is reported to still deploy 70% of its Armed Forces in a Pakistan specific direction, even though it claims to aspire for a regional and global power status, the threat covers the LoC in Kashmir and the possible adverse fall-out from the unresolved disputes of Kashmir, Siachin, Sir Creek and differences on interpretation of the Indus Water Treaty. But India is not confined to the East alone. Indian ambitions in Afghanistan remain a valid source of concern for Pakistan, given both history and the present. Then, the only Member-State of the United Nations which opposed the application of Pakistan for Membership of the UN in August 1947 (but later, fortunately, withdrew it in November 1947) remains 65 years later in 2014, the source of refugees burdening our own resources (now for over 30 years !), periodic border conflicts, potential after-affects of the NATO withdrawal post-2014.

External media also represent a form of external threat to Pakistan. At one extreme are the xenophobic, chauvinistic Indian media which thrive on demonizing Pakistan : in contrast to the large-hearted Pakistani people who continue to view Indian Bollywood cinema both in Pakistani cinema theatres and on TV channels. In general, overseas media, be they national in scale or global in their reach such as BBC, CNN, The New York Times, etc. reflect a covert, if not explicit bias against Pakistan. Almost every single foreigner whom this writer has met and who has visited Pakistan for the first time says with wonder : “how different, and how much better is your country than how it is portrayed by our media !” Which says as much about the bias of external media as it does about how little we ourselves have done to correct this negative image, to improve our internal conditions and to invest hard-cash and human resources in building a more positive perception for Pakistan across the globe.

External with internal extensions :

Another form of threat that combines an external source with an internal ally is in the area of soft subversion, as distinct from the sponsorship of internal extremism by even countries friendly with Pakistan ,and terrorism by countries hostile to Pakistan. This combination results in individuals, and in some cases organizations becoming the “assets” of certain countries that want to promote their own ideology or interest inside Pakistan without being visibly seen to do so. Such actions can include financial aid and encouragement of religious seminaries, madrassas and outfits that indoctrinate both youth and adults to adopt a narrow, exclusivist, “I-am-right-and-you-are-wrong” attitude and consequent actions of intolerance, hatred and even violence. But also in this category are some members of civil society, journalists, writers and others who have the ability to shape public opinion. Only a handful, or as one would like to think, none of them consciously and willingly become the de facto spokespersons for countries hostile to Pakistan. Possibly inadvertently, unintentionally by their un-relenting criticism of certain institutions e.g. the unfortunate interventions by the Armed Forces into the political domain, the role of intelligence agencies etc., there remains little difference between what they claim to be the truth and what is said or published in media and in countries patently hostile to Pakistan.

One must underline a note of caution in this particular respect. And this is to discourage and condemn the tendency to suspect every critic of some aspects of the Armed Forces to be anti-Pakistan or to be an agent of a foreign power. Many critics of the political role of our Armed Forces and the intelligence agencies are sincerely motivated by the best interests of their beloved country. It is only coincidental that their views coincide with the views of elements hostile to Pakistan. Only hard, verified intelligence should be the basis to identify who are consciously working for the soft assets of alien forces to become a fusion of both internal and external threats.

Consensus --not always possible :

On an overall basis, more consensus is likely within the country on the reality and the specificality of external threats rather than a consensus on internal threats and how media can play a corrective role. But in external threats as well there is a diversity of perceptions. For instance, there are some who believe that the doctrine of strategic depth applied by Pakistan to its relations with Afghanistan is completely mis-founded. Whereas due to both geographical, historical and due to ethnic, linguistic proximity and affinity, as also to sheer strategic military considerations, there is a degree of justification of the strategic depth doctrine as long as it does not violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Afghanistan. Almost every nation-State with demarcated frontiers has to be concerned about its immediate neighbours, about whether in times of stress and threat, such neighbours can be a reliable source of support and sympathy. Regrettably, sometimes some content of the media dismisses the strategic depth doctrine as merely the selfish aspirations of the Pakistani military.

There is also a lack of consensus in another aspect of external threats. With regard to increasing trade with India, one view is that if we allow trade to grow quickly with India there will be more incentive for India to become more reasonable on a just settlement of the Kashmir dispute. Whereas the other, well-founded view is that trade should be tightly-graded and only gradually , incrementally advanced in direct relation to actual steps taken by India to reduce its oppression of Kashmir through its huge military presence in the Valley and to conduct purposeful dialogue with Pakistan. Media reflect this divide which may or may not be a bad thing ! Except where media unduly promote one choice over the other and are unduly charitable to India. For example, a few months ago, a distinguished former Editor of a leading Pakistani English newspaper wrote that Pakistan’s policy on the Kashmir dispute is “intransigent”. Whereas the fact is that it is Pakistan, over the past 67 years including specially the tenure of General Pervez Musharraf – the COAS himself ! – which has consistently been the most reasonable, flexible and dialogue-minded as compared to the rigidity and irrationality of India’s position.

One factor that possibly prevents a major consensus within the country and the media on external threats is the widespread view, both in Pakistani media and overseas that there is a clear division of power and responsibility between the civil and military in respect of policies on nuclear weapons, Kashmir and Afghanistan in particular. Until the civil , political leadership demonstrates enough competence and strength to assert its leadership in these fields and until the military accepts civilian oversight in actual practice, this lack of clarity on the magnitude of external threats will continue.

State-owned media's role :

Credit is due to State-owned media such as PTV and PBC for their respective roles in informing and educating the people about both internal and external threats. They have not allowed commercialism and sensationalism to divert them from this task as have the private electronic media. Yet these State media have the inherent limitations of being owned by the State and controlled by the Government of the day. Even though they often project views and content that are quite critical of the Government of the day, they continue to suffer from the strong perception that they are instruments of Government propaganda rather than of balanced and independent analysis. The Media Commission appointed by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 2013 in its report and recommendations (available in hard-copy through complimentary copies published and distributed by the Islamabad office of the German Foundation, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung) offers proposals to enable State media to become more credible and effective.

Concluding thoughts :

In conclusion : do media matter ? Yes, they do. Even as they are presently riven by bitter, acrimonious conflict e.g. the on-going warfare between the ARY, The Express group on one side and the Jang/Geo group on the other side, the media as a whole sphere are a vital means to combat both internal and external threats. From the most basic functions of conveying hard facts to the public to the offering of diverse opinions on issues, they have in theory and in principle , practical and positive contributions to make. They are, to some extent already doing so. Yet there are serious flaws and deficiencies in media across the board. In certain cases of irresponsible , unethical , unprofessional journalism , by simple incompetence or by devious design , the content of media can itself become an internal threat ! But these aberrations should not foster a paranoia and a distrust of media .For details on some aspects of shortcomings and for their possible reform, reference may be made to the Media Commission’s Report cited above.

In this reflection, a summation can comprise :there is a clear need for substantive capacity-building of media at all levels of their human resources, from owner to editor/content controller , from correspondent to commentator to camera crews . Equally there is a dire need to strengthen the safety and protection of journalists and media's field operatives in the context of the heavy loss of lives suffered by journalists and media persons , apart from being victims of police violence and terrorists.

Media are like invaluable early warning systems against the emergence of threats. For years, if not decades, some of the leading English language newspapers have been sounding the alarm against the advent of religious extremism and hate material. But there is a need to build capacity for comprehension of the threats both in Urdu media, in regional language media and in parts of English language media at all levels on a sustained basis.

To combat internal and external threats in a purposeful way, media, individually and collectively should help build a new narrative for public discourse. Such a new narrative should espouse pluralism, diversity, freedom of responsible and well-informed expression, not uniformity and a forced compliance with official or non-official versions of reality.

Do media matter ? Not necessarily always , or fully ! About 32 years ago in 1982, this writer contributed an essay to Dawn’s Sunday magazine section titled : “Five paradoxes of mass media”. The same essay is reproduced in the book : “The Global City” published by Royal Book Company, Karachi. In that essay, one of the paradoxes that one presented is that media set out to delineate and depict reality but actually manage to distort reality because no medium can ever convey the totality of reality. By being subjective and selective, media content is inevitably suppressive. Thus, where media have power, media also have severe limitations. Sometimes, as earlier said ,media themselves can be part of both internal and external threats ! So even as we end this exploration with a wish for a set of Guidelines for Media about Coverage of Internal and External Threats let us also affirm the importance of the larger, non-media reality which we have to transform to make Pakistan a truly great country.

As published in Hilal, September 2014, an official monthly journal of the Pakistan Armed Forces produced by Inter-Services Public Relations, Rawalpindi.