By Najam Sethi
The Pak army can’t continue to deflect criticism in name of ‘national interest’
PAKISTAN’S Military Inc is angry at leading sections of the local and foreign media.
According to various ISPR press statements, these elements are spreading “false”, “baseless” and “malicious” news and analysis designed to “destabilise and undermine the armed forces”. Nothing less than a vicious “conspiracy” against the noble and heroic armed forces is alleged.
There are two dimensions to this angry retort. The first relates to the domestic media’s criticism of the military’s performance, role and policy as demonstrated by a string of recent incidents which show the military and its various agencies and allied institutions in rather poor light — the outrageous terrorist attacks on GHQ and PNS Mehran, the callous gunning down of an unarmed civilian by the Rangers in Karachi and a group of Chechans/ Russians in Kharotabad, Balochistan, by our gallant police and border guards. The civilian outrage was compounded by the humiliating American raid to extract OBL from the bowels of a military town without the knowledge or resistance of our Sacred Guardians. The local media, in particular, is fearful and angry after the broad daylight kidnapping of journalist Saleem Shahzad in Islamabad and his subsequent torture and killing by “unknown assailants” whose footprints, as per the last testament of the slain journalist, lead to Aab Para.
The first clutch of criticisms relates to the military’s performance.
The issue for the military here is not so much of the validity of the facts — which can hardly be denied — but whether it is proper or right to reveal them because they weaken the morale and public standing of the armed forces and thereby undermine “ national security”.
THE second is more provocative because ( a) “ the army doesn’t torture and kill people in custody” ( b) “ there is no evidence of ISI culpability in Saleem Shahzad’s murder and the agency has stoutly denied it.” Both responses require a fair rejoinder.
In a democracy there are no “sacred cows”. If elected prime ministers, presidents, chief ministers, ministers, opposition leaders, civil servants and businessmen can be hounded out of government or dragged off to jails and courts, if the conduct of judges and their judgments can be seriously questioned and criticised, if the media can be regulated, if parliament can be put on the mat, why can’t the armed forces be stretched on the same accountability rack? Surely, “national security” is determined as much by the potency of the military (which is determined by the yardstick of actual performance on the ground in any eventuality) as it is by the vitality of the politico- economic system and its interlocutors (civilians) that underpin the nation- state. Therefore if the latter is kosher for critical appraisal, the former should not take exception to an application of the same rules to its own behaviour and output. The military should also realise that it cannot and should not monopolise the definition and defense of the “national interest” if it simultaneously wishes to confer the “ownership of it to the elected civilian government when it runs into trouble because of indefensible and opaque policies — contradictions in point being the “ strategic” or “ transactional” relationship with the US, the winking policy on drones and the war against the Al- Qaeda- Taliban terrorists ( our war or theirs?).
The military’s case on all core issues has been enormously weakened by its outright refusal, at first, to accept independent and credible commissions of inquiry and then, faced with relentless pressure to concede, to try and tilt such inquiries in its own favour by clutching at the elusive but exclusionist notions of “national security” and “national interest”. It would have been less arrogant and more advisable to concede independent commissions but to restrict their findings to parliamentary or judicial committees and not make “sensitive” or “national security” issues public by evoking joint civil- military ownership of such findings — this being an acceptable norm in most democracies.
The military’s understanding of the way the free media functions in most established foreign democracies is also lacking.
Such democracies in the West or in India are built on solid and enduring foundations of civilian and constitutional oversight over their respective militaries.
That is why when their militaries run into trouble, the civilians are quick to bail them out — after all, they have institutional “ownership” of their country’s military adventures and policies.
That is also why the media in such consensually- built democracies is quick to line up behind their democratic governments and subservient militaries and the slogan of “my country, right or wrong” resounds with force.
Therefore to accuse the western media of “ destabilising” Pakistan by spreading “ lies”, “ scurrilous rumours” and “ unsubstantiated news” that undermine the Pakistani military, without making the same charge at the foreign governments and militaries in which such media are strategically embedded and with whom the Pakistani military has entered into “ strategic” and historical “ relationships”, is tilting at windmills.
THE difference between the free media in such established, consensual and functional civilian democracies and the free media in a dysfunctional and fledgling democracy with excessive military overhang in Pakistan is also worth stating.
In a formal meeting with senior media persons shortly after the OBL fiasco, a senior Intel official kicked off his “ briefing” by righteously scowling that “ the Pakistani media was regretfully not as “ patriotic” as the Western and Indian media” because it was unduly critical of its national security institutions while the enemy was united. In the event, the boot might well be on the other foot. Even after three disastrous interventions spanning thirty years and a military misadventure in Kargil in which elected civilians and fellow air force and navy comrades were kept out of the loop, the Pakistani army refuses to be subservient to the civilian order and insists on monopolising the “national interest”. Under the circumstances, it is a moot point at best whether the media or the military in Pakistan is more or less patriotic in heeding or hoodwinking democracy and the constitution.
The writer is editor of The Friday Times
Source: Mail Today