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Pakistan: If we persist with fire-fighting, the fire will only spread further

by Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, 16 November 2009

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The below article appeared first in: The News International, November 16, 2009

Some six months ago I wrote a critique of the media on these pages for not abiding by professional journalistic ethics in its coverage of the military action in Malakand. Among other things, I emphasised how the daily Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) press releases were printed almost word for word without independent source verification (or a mention that no such source existed).

It is perhaps not surprising that the same exercise is being repeated now with Operation Rah-e-Nijat. But it is a damning indictment of those who claim to be committed to freedom of information and other principles of media democracy all the same. Through the course of this year, as the state’s long-standing policy of patronising religious militancy has unravelled in the face of increasing pressure from Washington, the media has answered the call of the powers-that-be to be loyal to the “greater national interest.” It is perhaps considered by and by that protecting the “greater national interest” requires the sacrifice of basic journalistic principles.

For a few days recently some media personalities made hay about restrictions on media coverage of “terrorism” which apparently all parliamentary parties deemed necessary. The expected furore never came to pass, and it has recently been reported that most media outlets have voluntarily agreed to a code of conduct vis-a-vis what can be shown on live TV and what cannot. No democratic government should ever employ draconian measures against the media. On this occasion, however, it appears to make sense that a confrontation was avoided by the media’s own admission that showing mutilated bodies strewn around bomb sites is not beneficial to the public interest. But in general the media’s practice of self-censorship is motivated rarely by public-interest concerns.

The media is a commercial entity and therefore can always be expected to cater, first and foremost, to its profit-making needs. In Pakistan the private TV media revolution was welcomed by ordinary people who have historically been fed a surfeit of state ideology via Pakistan Television (PTV). Only a few short years after a glittering christening, however, the private media has proven that the profit-motive can coexist quite well with the ideological agenda that we all thought had been left behind with the state’s monopoly on information.

In recent times the media has clamoured about the imperative of military action in Waziristan while at the same time recovering the familiar narrative of an Indian-Israeli-American conspiracy to deprive Pakistan of its nuclear arsenal and eventually dismember it. It is amazing that these two narratives can go together, but that is exactly how the choreographers behind the scenes would have it. In short, the ideational leap that was first made immediately prior to the Swat operation – that the once loyal jihadi protégés of the state are now its most lethal enemies – is being taken to its logical conclusion; that is, through the insistence that those who claim to be undertaking jihad against the Pakistani state are actually agents of RAW, Mossad and the CIA.

The “foreign hand” theory is back in a big way, and the media is proving to be more loyal than the king in propagating it far and wide. Caches of arms captured in high-profile operations read “Made in India.” Newspaper headlines accuse the “foreign hand” of constructing special aircraft to storm our nuclear installations. In a very conspicuous parallel development, the Afghan Taliban have reportedly dissociated themselves with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), claiming that real warriors of Islam never target Muslim innocents. This fits the media narrative that has now cast away all pretensions in making a clear distinction between genuine holy warriors and “enemy” agents masquerading as jihadis. The former are essential to the security of “Islam,” and therefore the Pakistani state, whereas the latter are out to malign Islam and wipe Pakistan off the map.

The right-wingers in the media, educational institutions and within the state are of course aided in drumming up nationalist hysteria by the increasingly conspicuous man-management that Washington insists upon. It is a fact that there has been an influx of American “security men” into Islamabad and other cities. It was widely reported that Americans completed deserted their positions on the Pakistani-Afghan border as soon as the South Waziristan operation started. Then there is the recently published story in The New Yorker by Seymour Hersh rehashing the tired theme of Pakistani nukes’ safety.

Notwithstanding the disastrous role that American imperialism has played, and continues to play, in the wider region, it is crucial to understand why anti-Americanism (and its anti-India corollary) is being cultivated by the media at the present time. The goal is not to facilitate democratisation or foster genuine anti-imperialist sensibilities; the media’s harping on about America and India directly aids the security establishment’s attempts to paper over the contradictions that have erupted in recent times to reassert its strategic vision and its control over state affairs.

American forces must leave Afghanistan and American control over policymaking in Pakistan must be resisted. But the same security establishment and right-wing media that got into bed with the Americans in the first place some 30 years ago are part of the problem, and are not the heroic defenders of the people that they claim to be.

As the operation in South Waziristan is concluded, to great media fanfare, the people of Pakistan will be no closer to lasting peace than they were before the “mother of all operations” was started. In fact, very little appears to have changed. Change will only happen if and when we undertake an exercise in collective introspection and accept that the Frankenstein that we have created cannot be understood, and therefore tamed, by engaging in unaccountable military operations in one part of the country after another.

This is not a “war” against the proverbial “foreign hand,” or even, as the liberals would have it, against the “extremists.” After all, those who blow themselves up are products of this society and the ideas that circulate freely within it. The real battle must be waged against the obsolete and poisonous ideas that litter our textbooks and the hyper-nationalist propaganda that is spewed out by those who claim to be providing us with unadulterated facts. Underlying all of this is a gory struggle for power in which all players invoke state sovereignty and willingly expend human lives in the name of this sovereignty.

If we are willing to get to the heart of the matter, there may yet be hope that we can build a self-respecting nation on the basis of a new social contract. Such a nation can resist Empire, and make friends with its neighbours. If we persist with fire-fighting, the fire will only spread further.

The writer teaches colonial history at Quaid-e-Azam University and is affiliated with People’s Rights Movement.