Activists accuse the Pakistani military of pressuring journalists into toeing its line – portraying the army as “savior” and the politicians as corrupt. DW analyzes the army’s expanding media activities.
Prominent Pakistani rights activist Asma Jahangir has raised some pertinent questions about the role of the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) department. The veteran activist believes that like all other media-related organizations, the ISPR should also be regulated by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra), a civilian-controlled government body.
Pemra, however, has no control over the powerful army’s media activities.
On Wednesday, June 15, Jahangir appeared before a two-judge Supreme Court bench, requesting the court to investigate under which law the army’s media cell was operating.
“We have been talking a lot about the civilian government, but the media cell of the [army] should also be monitored,” Jahangir was quoted as saying by the local Dawn newspaper.
Jahangir accused the army of running a smear campaign against politicians and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in an attempt to weaken his government so that the military keeps an upper hand over the civilian administration.
Activists blame the army’s expanding role for the muzzling of free speech in Pakistan, particularly in the context of fighting terrorism, but also in other spheres such as economy and politics. They say the issue is seldom discussed in the international media.
The ‘messiah army’
In fact, the military’s media activities have increased manifold over the past few years. The ISPR now regularly tweets and sends out press releases to spread a positive image of the military. From the operation “Zarb-i-Azb” against the Taliban to the army-led development projects in the country, the military’s media team is busy promoting the armed forces as a “savior” of the Islamic nation.
But what worries the activists, and which Jahangir also pointed out, is that the army’s media wing deliberately and systematically shows the civilian government and politicians in a bad light, thus undermining their credibility and legitimacy as constitutional rulers of the country. The military officials, however, deny these accusations.
“There is not much truth about the independence of media in Pakistan,” a veteran Pakistani journalist said on condition of anonymity on the sidelines of DW’s Global Media Forum in Bonn, which ended on June 15. The gathering of international journalists focused on the issue of media freedom and values.
“The journalists have to follow the military directives all the time, mostly so on security issues and the way the army and the politicians are being portrayed in the media,” he added.
The Brussels-based journalist also allege that high-ranking military officials influence the decision-making processes in media houses and put journalists and media owners under constant pressure. They also back and promote a number of security analysts and political commentators that toe the military’s line, he claimed.
“These ‘analysts’ have only one mission: portray PM Sharif and his government as incompetent, corrupt and disgraceful, and present the army as a sort of a mesiah.”
One of the examples of the military “campaign” is gigantic “Thank you, General Raheel Sharif” posters that one can see in all major cities of the South Asian country. Supporters of the army chief Raheel Sharif have also set up large billboards in most metropolises, heaping lavish praise on the military general for “liberating the country from terrorists and criminals.”
Critics of the military say that such a campaign requires a large amount of money and financial resources, and it can’t be done without the direct backing of the army.
‘Sensitive’ security issues
Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists. Besides constant threats from violent Islamist groups, journalists also face intimidation from the security forces.
In a report released in 2014, rights group Amnesty International documented 34 cases of journalists being killed in the period from the restoration of democratic rule in Pakistan in 2008 to April 2014.
“A critical first step must be for Pakistan to investigate its own military and intelligence agencies and ensure that those responsible for human rights violations against journalists are brought to justice. This will send a powerful signal to those who target journalists that they no longer have a free reign,” David Griffiths, Amnesty International’s deputy Asia Pacific director, told DW.
Nasir Tufail, a Karachi-based Geo TV journalist, says the most perilous issue for a Pakistani journalist is to report on terrorism and Islamism, and that the reporters who are working on these issues have to be very careful. It leads to self-censorship, he says.
“Most journalists can’t even think of going to most parts of the Balochistan province, where the military is operating against separatists. How can you expect independent reporting from there?” Tufail questioned.
“We highlighted the issue of Balochistan for several months. We tried to analyze it in a serious manner. But the issue is very sensitive for the security agencies, hence journalists are afraid to cover it,” Tufail added.
Generally, however, experts agree that the Pakistani media enjoy a great amount of freedom to criticize the government, politicians, the military and its ubiquitous intelligence agencies, including the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), in such a way that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago.
However, this freedom has been accompanied by some insecurity as there are state and non-state elements who do not favor press freedom.
Despite these odds, many journalists are optimistic about the future of media in Pakistan.
“The struggle to report independently and objectively will continue,” Tufail said. “What we have achieved is the result of our decades-long battle against suppression, and our longing for freedom.”