At a recent press conference, Major General Asif Ghafoor Bajwa, the director-general of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), warned the Pashtoon Tahfafuz Movement (PTM) that the government will crack down on it if it crosses any red lines. Bajwa also told the Pakistani media that it should only show the country in a positive light for the next six months.
He pointed out that Pakistan has suffered over the past 70 years due to its weak economy, lack of proper governance, flaws in the judicial and educational systems, and religious extremism. Being a military spokesperson, one can understand that Bajwa has a duty to express the military establishment’s point of view, and his concerns about the PTM’s way of demanding rights are probably justified, but asking the media to present a positive image of the country by only conveying positive news is neither understandable nor justifiable.
The media’s role is to highlight the performance of the government and to bring facts and information to the public that people would otherwise not receive. Perhaps his institution does not realize that the image of the country is always built on the actions of the state, not by the news and opinions presented by journalists.
Pakistan’s image crisis has been a problem for a long time. The hyper-nationalists and the establishment think that it is the media and the dissident political and social activists who are responsible for defaming Pakistan. However, the reality is quite different. The international administrations do not merely rely on the news and opinions of the journalists and media houses. They have their own way of getting the facts about a particular country.
Since Pakistan has been controlled primarily by the military establishment, it is very natural for global administrations and the local and international media to criticize the establishment more often than the weak elected political leaders and their governments. According to Bajwa, Pakistan’s problems are attributable to its weak economy. Well, a country that spends most of its budget on defense and relies on foreign loans to cover its military budget and other expenses can never have a strong and stable economy unless it drastically cuts its defense budget and spends heavily on education, health and poverty alleviation instead.
Bajwa also said that a lack of proper governance is another reason Pakistan is not making progress, but the fact is that Pakistan was governed for almost 30 years by military dictators and for the remaining time it has been ruled indirectly by the military establishment. When the military establishment devises foreign policy and internal security policy and creates a security state by asserting control over public affairs, it cannot claim it bears no responsibility for the problem of poor governance.
The flaws in the judicial and educational systems can be attributed to the incompetence of elected governments and political parties, but the rise of extremism is directly related to the decision to fight an American proxy battle against the USSR in Afghanistan
The flaws in the judicial and educational systems can be attributed to the incompetence of elected governments and political parties, but the rise of extremism is directly related to the decision to fight an American proxy battle against the USSR in Afghanistan in the late 70s and then in the 80s under the military dictator Zia Ul Haq. So the military establishment cannot blame anyone else for the rise of extremism in the country.
To be fair, the current military brass had nothing to do with these decisions and it has actually fought hard to overcome the menace of extremism and defeat the Taliban faction in Pakistan. However, the current military leadership needs to understand that journalists are not brand managers or public relation officers who can be asked to present a soft image of the country.
Factual journalism requires impartiality and the courage to report and write without tilting towards the state-devised narrative. The image of the state can be improved by highlighting the state narrative through public relations managers or brand managers but not through journalists. At the same time, the military establishment has to realize that the freedom to dissent also helps build a positive image of the state.
Enforcing a one-sided narrative by putting curbs on the media is a mistake which has been repeated many times by the establishment. As a result, in spite of being much better than most Muslim countries in terms of freedom of expression, Pakistan is still considered a dangerous place for journalists and people with dissenting opinions.
Similarly, involvement in politics and the manipulation of political proceedings will not help the cause of the establishment as it will just create divides among the masses, and the supporters of a victimized political party will always raise questions about the political role of the establishment, as the constitution of Pakistan does not allow any of the armed forces institutions to be involved in politics.
The desire to control state affairs from behind the scenes will always attract criticism. In any case, owning the largest FM radio network in the country and many TV channels praising the establishment round the clock means it should not be worried about a few critical journalists and other voices. The media should not be seen as a tool to promote the narrative of the establishment or of the state.
A 70-year campaign to promote establishment and state narratives has failed to improve Pakistan’s image. For many critics, this current advice to media is to paint only a positive picture is an effort to save the face of the establishment-installed, Imran Khan-led government. The inability of the government to manage state affairs and an anti-government feeling among the masses, especially in the province of Punjab, is putting pressure on the establishment both locally and globally to stop engineering the political process.
At a time when the world knows that the establishment is trying to assert its authority over political proceedings by trying to eliminate its arch-rival Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister, and his party, it will be very difficult for the media to convince the world that Pakistan is gradually becoming a strong democratic country or is progressing economically under the rule of Khan and the establishment.
It is time for the establishment to take a back seat and try not to dictate to the media or politicians. It is the only way democracy and freedom of expression can flourish in Pakistan.