Military's Image and Curbs on Media in Pakistan: What it Really Means?

Respecting the military and the media
By Dr Adil Najam
The News, June 4, 2007

The writer teaches International Negotiation and Diplomacy at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, US. He is the founding editor of

It is both sad and dangerous when a society begins to loose respect for its military. It is sad because it implies the breakdown of the social contract between soldier and citizen. This contract is one amongst the many that are necessary for the cohesion of the nation-state. When it works, it is based on bonds of common identity and mutual respect. This respect is necessary if it is to ultimately translate into the willingness of the former to lay down his life, when needed, for the latter. The breakdown of this primal social contract is dangerous because this is nearly always a sign that much else in society has already broken and a harbinger of more societal fissures to come.

The clampdown of media freedoms by the state is also a sad and dangerous thing. And for much the same reasons. Media freedom, after all, is a representation of -- and in some ways a custodian of -- citizen freedoms. To curtail the expression of this freedom is often the first sign of a state's willingness to ignore other societal contracts.

Neither of these extreme situations has yet transpired in Pakistan. However, we stand dangerously close to the precipice of both.

General Musharraf is right to worry about the increasing hostility against the military as an institution (as opposed to the longer-lived hostility to his person). He is wrong, however, in his attempt to 'enforce' respect for the military. Respect cannot be legislated. Indeed, the attempt to do so is a reminder that respect has already been lost. He is equally wrong in his attempts to muzzle the enthusiasms of an increasingly independent and (for him) bothersome media. As both situations continue to escalate, someone should tell Gen. Musharraf to step back and take a deep breath before things get totally out of hand. The consequences of continuing on the path of confrontation on these issues will not only be ruinous for him, they will also be disastrous for the military as an institution, for the integrity of the media, and for the country as a whole.

The general's government has rightly diagnosed and is appropriately concerned about the sinking support for the military amongst ordinary Pakistanis. However, instead of responding with threats and pontifications, the government should have invested in an honest assessment of why public anger against the military is rising. Most particularly since the killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti, there has been a rather dramatic shift in how Pakistanis talk about the military. Of course, criticism of the 'generals' and the 'top brass' has been a permanent centerpiece of Pakistani conversations for as long as one can remember (even in times of civilian rule). Additionally, the last few years have seen increasing resentment against the ubiquitous intrusion -- at the highest levels -- of senior military officers in any and all civilian institutions. But the new and troublesome development is that the anger is no longer targeted only at corruption and power grabbing ploys of senior officers. It is now directed at the military as a whole, the entire institution; against all faujis.

This is new and unusual, not only for Pakistan but for any society. Compare, for example, to the debate within the US on American misadventures in Iraq. Even the bitterest critics of the war begin their assaults on the blunders of the military leadership by expressing unreserved support for the 'men and women' in the trenches. This is how it usually is everywhere, and how it has mostly been in Pakistan -- but no longer so.

This highlights the fact that a dangerous threshold in military-society relationship has been crossed. Abject, repeated and volatile public criticism of the military as a whole can only breed despondency, distrust and (possibly) disgust amongst the junior officers and 'jawans' in military. In the worst-case scenario, this resentment could unleash anger amongst the soldiers against the civilian population at large -- the very citizens who the soldiers are supposed to protect then become the 'enemy'. This is what happened in 1971 against Bengalis; to disastrous effect. Alternatively, the rank and file might react by directing their resentment against their own leadership, recognizing that it is the power antics of their own generals that has turned the citizen against the soldier. Neither is good for the military or for the country.

One wonders whether the corps commanders tried to analyze this situation when they met in Rawalpindi last week. An honest assessment would find that there is a desperate and immediate need for the military to visibly distance itself from active politics and civilian institutions. Sensing the public sentiment, at least some of those present at the meeting must have recognized that it is now in the best interest of the military as an institution to move towards the de-militarization of civilian institutions, the removal of General Musharraf's uniform, and ultimately full retreat from active politics. Of course, this is not in the best personal interests of the military top brass; including General Musharraf. Herein lies the roots of the dilemma that is causing so much angst within all ranks of the Pakistan military.

The government's way of trying to resolve this angst, unfortunately, has been to issue some veiled and many unveiled threats to the media -- particularly the electronic media -- who it considers responsible for fanning anti-military sentiments, particularly in the context of discussions and coverage of the current judicial crisis. Most recently this has resulted in the government banning portions of the transmissions of various news channels. Apart from the conceptual sleaziness of trying to save the face of one critical national institution by smearing another, this is a recipe for making bad things worse.

I have never been impressed by General Musharraf's chest-thumping assertions about how he 'gave' freedom to the press. Freedom is not something that anyone can 'give' to anyone else. It is a desire that is inherent, intrinsic and ingrained within individuals as well as institutions. The credit for the expression of freedom by the Pakistani media can, therefore, go to no one except the Pakistani media itself. Having said that, it is also true that while freedom cannot be 'given' it can be 'taken away.' While freedom cannot be bestowed by government, it can -- and often is – curtailed by government. For much of his tenure, General Musharraf does deserve credit for having chosen not to limit or attack the freedom of the media. He cannot be credited with 'giving' the media new freedoms, but he should certainly be commended for not 'taking it away' -- that is, until now.

Unfortunately, he seems to be losing his patience; and his cool. Like many before him, he now finds it convenient to blame the media for problems -- such as the judicial crisis and the increasing anger against the military-- that are essentially of his own making. He seems ready to undo one more positive aspect of his political legacy. Indeed, he may already have.

Just like issuing threats and sermons on the 'sanctity' of the military is not going to restore the respect and dignity of that institution, clamping down on the media is also not going to make prickly political problems disappear. The problem is not with those who are reporting the news. The problem is with the news itself. The respect for the military will be restored when the behavior of the military top brass changes. And the 'ugly pictures' in the media that are so bothersome to the government will disappear when there are no ugly situations to report on.


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