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Media games and the evil hand

The propagation of pro-militant views amounts to betrayal, if not treason when one talks about the interests of this country and its residents. Apologists of this worldview must be exposed and taken to task

By Imtiaz Gul

Friday Times May 28, 2010

Back in 1995, I wrote an analysis for TFT regarding the performance of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies based on my personal experiences in Islamabad and Muzaffarabad. As the story goes, someone at the ISI got a hold of my article which was titled “How Intelligent are the Intelligence Agencies” and without reading editorial it was declared that I was a “security risk”. As a result, I was blacklisted for the next year and a half, from access to important ceremonies and trips to areas such as Kashmir and FATA. Only through the intervention of some high-ranking personality within the establishment could I reverse my status as a “patriotic” journalist.

Looking back at those times, it was the age of PTV, private newspapers, and foreign radio channels such as BBC, VOA and Deutsche Welle. Despite this, there was little an individual could do to protest arbitrary actions of some colonel or major who wielded enough power to block a journalist or two like myself by declaring them a security risk. Despite this, the role of the intelligence community is essential in defending the countries national interests.

For months the Red Mosque was under siege, the mosque-goers and Jamia Hafsa occupants defied the government orders to vacate the premises. Instead they acted wilfully by abducting policemen, Chinese women, and attacking the nearby music shops. The series of events led up to July 2008 operation, where a standoff occured with the government. The bizarre aspect of the confrontation was the relatively nascent private electronic media; with its scores of cameras and reporters deployed around the mosque, and live broadcasting just to ensure discussions could take place on popular talk shows. This proved to be the most powerful medium for the militant groups to connect with the general populace. It was stunning to see how easily Maulana Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rasheed Ghazi, the chief administrator, were able to talk to the private channels unhindered.

In this case, the private media proved to act as a carrier for defiant statements against the government. Further it projected the opinion of those who seemed to enjoy the limelight and those who were deluded into thinking that they might get away with this brazen defiance of the state. Despite all this, the intelligence agencies and PEMRA did not take action against anybody relaying the coverage of this incident and did block independent news providers for this malicious news.

Many of our colleagues in the media at the time were still questioning why the state had not moved against the miscreants inside of the Red Mosque. Their views changed drastically when the special units decided to go in after the occupants refused to surrender. Several journalists and people in the media began condemning the assault by chanting that it was “the killing of innocent women and children.” Various sources made exaggerated claims that over a thousand deaths had occurred in the process of army action. These numbers were in stark contrast to the assurances by most ministers including Tariq Azeem, who had confirmed that the last time Ghazi had asked for food it was for 130 people.

Further, the post-operation propaganda saw several political TV programmes criticise the military and the government for “brutally killing innocent people”. In reality the coverage proved an amazing display of emotions and sympathy for a bunch of people who had refused to submit to the state.

At that time, no intelligence agency took action against any journalist. On the contrary, politicians, civilians and army officials were seen in the media stoking emotions in favour of the Ghazi zealots. The unbridled media men and anchors played a major role in promoting these views after the operation. Until today, these pro-militants’ sentiments have grown stronger, prompting many critics to ask whether media is above the law, and whether those people defaming and tearing down the state had any moral scruples.

We witnessed a similar situation in 2009, when the TTP militants in Swat, Waziristan and Bajaur – declared war and swore revenge on the state of Pakistan through the mainstream media. Many channels aired recorded interviews, phone-beepers with leaders such as Baitullah Mehsud and Muslim Khan – all of whom were openly preaching against the Pakistani government and the army.

Most of the intelligence community seemed to be clueless as to how these live conversations with the TTP would impact the public at large. The most disappointing and embarrassing moment occurred when a major television channel aired the live cross-questioning of four Pakistan Army commandos, who had been captured by the Taliban. In this case, an overzealous reporter had managed to reach these commandos somewhere in Buner and, to the nation’s disgust; the channel’s top brass gave little thought while releasing the images of those men. Further, the race for exclusive coverage saw no bounds, and in this case the private TV channels became an instrument of spreading terror and fear by providing the live telecasting of captured commandos.

The portrayal of these events feeds into the narratives that largely came from the crooked components of the former religio-political alliance of the MMA, which has branded the USA-led counter-insurgency in the region as “an unjust war against Muslims”. Members of this alliance have acted as the main apologists to various shades of militancy by refraining to condemn suicide bombings and other forms of violence. With their skewed version of jihad and their self-serving views regarding the West, these parties are easily misleading ignorant, illiterate people by creating romantic notions around terms such as Jihad, Taliban and Mujahideen. It is evident that many journalists have also adopted and bought into this MMA line of religious and political thinking.

While these parties have condemned US drone strikes by terming them as an assault on Pakistan’s sovereignty, such critics have conveniently kept mum with regards to how organizations such as Al-Qaeda, or the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have infringed upon Pakistan’s sovereignty by turning territories within Pakistan into sanctuaries and training grounds for terror. In this regard, the rogue or trans-national entities have not only violated Pakistan’s sovereignty, but also have brought misery upon the residents who live in these areas, while also tarnishing the global image of the country.

The propagation of these militant views amounts to betrayal, if not treason when one talks about the interests of this country and its residents. Apologists of this worldview must be exposed and taken to task. This is the role of intelligence agencies: if they want to be considered the guardians of the country, they need to do more to expose these apologists in the media.

In the current times, self-accountability, self-regulation and adherence to fundamental principles of professional journalism are even more important. Hamid Mir’s alleged conversation with a militant regarding Khalid Khwaja underscores the need for further introspection. It is obvious that intelligence recorded and released the tape – if it ever took place. Constitutionally, this is marks a huge intrusion into the privacy of a journalist, who is an iconic and popular figure in the media. His status as journalist requires that he take greater responsibility for his expression – both on and off the screen.

The interests and security of 180 million people are far more sacrosanct than the freedom of a single individual. If the world’s oldest democracy – the USA – could tailor new Homeleand Security Regulations in the name of national interests, then why shouldn’t the state of Pakistan do the same? In the context of an unusual and unstable situation that this country finds itself in, it is imperative that all of us, including the media, politicians, the civil society, bureaucrats or state institutions, bear the burden and responsibility to challenge those who combat the national interest of Pakistan.

(The author heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad.

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk