Pakistan: Military and the Myth of Independent Media

08 May, 2014    ·   4428

Sushant Sareen analyses how the attack on Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir has more to it than it appears

When Pakistani journalists interact with Indians, it is a fairly common practise for many of them to label others of their ilk as an ‘agencies man’; i.e. being on the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)/Intelligence Bureau/Military Intelligence (MI) payroll. Quite asides whether this is just a tack to win the confidence of their Indian counterparts or there is an element of truth in the insinuation, the general impression one gets is that virtually every other media-man is a mole of the ‘deep state’. Despite the raucous, robust and often reckless nature of the Pakistani media, which in recent years has been pushing the envelope that much more, the infiltration and even influence of the ‘agencies’ over journalists was nothing extraordinary in what is by all accounts a National Security State. 

Establishment’s Control over the Media
In the recent years, however, the sort of control that the ‘deep state’ exercised over the media loosened considerably; at least in terms of its ability to shape the narrative and public discourse. Not surprisingly, the media had begun to feel empowered and top media persons would often boast about how they were now a power to reckon with and could make, break or save governments. But in the aftermath of the botched assassination attempt on journalist Hamid Mir, and with the ‘empire’ striking back not just against its detractors but also against ‘deserters’ (those who once worked hand-in-glove with the ‘establishment’), the media has been disabused of its hubris.

Even though the dust is still to settle on L’affaire Hamid Mir, the military versus media (specifically only the biggest media house: the Jang/Geo group) fight has exposed the divisions in the ranks of the media between the ‘agencies men’ and independent journalists. Worse, it has laid bare the dark underside of the machinations and manipulation of the ‘deep state’ to regain control over the national narrative.

Bribing and browbeating journalists and media houses to make them fall in line is nothing new in Pakistan. What is new is the addition of bullets that have journalists in their cross-hairs. While in the past this sort of intimidation was the sole prerogative of the ‘state’ actors – in the Pakistani lexicon, ‘sensitive agencies’, better known as ISI and MI – now even non-state (the Taliban and the Baloch insurgents, among others) and quasi-state actors (state-sponsored terror groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa) have jumped into the game. Resultantly,journalists are having to walk on the razor’s edge, caught as they are in a pincer between the military and the militants. 

The Campaign Against the Jang/Geo group 
The thinly disguised animosity of the military establishment towards the media (the Jang/Geo group in particular) has been some time in the making, and is something that becomes clear in the ‘charge-sheet’ filed by the ISI against the Jang/Geo group with the Pakistan Electronic Media Regularity Authority. However, there is another, sinister angle to the hounding of the Jang/Geo group. Some months back, there were reports of a new news channel that was being set up by the ISI with the help of international terrorists like Dawood Ibrahim.

When the story broke, it caused immense bad blood between the military and Jang/Geo. The ISI hit back by using another channel (owned by a Dubai-based businessman who is alleged to have been involved in all sorts of nefarious activities including gold smuggling) and a dubious talk show host with links with the military and terrorist outfits to launch a sustained vilification campaign against Jang/Geo. But this campaign wasn’t getting much traction, and Jang/Geo continued to dominate the media space with over 50% of market share. 

The Hamid Mir case offered a Godsend to the military to cut Jang/Geo to size, something that its competitors were more than happy to become part of. As the military saw it, even if it managed to get a channel of its own, it would serve no purpose as long as Jang/Geo remained the dominant force. 

Sandwiched: The Civilian Government
Caught in the crossfire of this fight between the military and the media is the civilian government, which already has tensions with the army over issues like relations with India, peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban and the treason case against former military dictator, General (Retd.) Pervez Musharraf. The Nawaz Sharif government cannot afford to let the military ride roughshod over the Jang/Geo group because this would significantly change the balance of power in favour of the military.

Simultaneously, the government ignore the military’s grievances against the media group either, because this would enhance the animus of the military towards the civilian government. 

How the current military-media stand-off will wind down remains to be seen. What is important is that this tussle has damaged all the actors. The media has been divided and its image has taken a beating and it no longer can make, break, and/or save governments. The limits to the army’s power have also been revealed. It can raise merry hell against anyone it targets but little beyond that. The army can still send in death squads to shoot down journalists but it has clearly lost the dominance it enjoyed in the past. The civilian government too has lost because of its inability to rein in the army and enforce civilian supremacy.