How The Military in Pakistan Influences The Country’s Media 

09 April, 2017

When the former civil servant and Pakistani author Ayesha Siddiqa’s book Military Inc. was first published in 2007, it caused a furor of sorts in Pakistan. In the book, Siddiqa wrote about “Milbus”—a term she coined to describe “military capital that is used for the personal benefit of the military fraternity, especially the officer cadre, but is neither recorded nor part of the defense budget.” For her research, she relied on government documents and extensive interviews with former military generals. She reported in the book that those associated with the military in Pakistan owned a diverse set of businesses and had amassed great personal wealth, all the while making it appear that Pakistan was instead undergoing economic growth. At the time of its publication, the administration had blocked the book’s release, and many in Pakistan termed Siddiqa a traitor to her nation. However, her book subsequently, found an audience, and critical acclaim.

In the second edition of the book, which was recently published in India, Siddiqa added a new chapter on the military’s expanding control over Pakistani media. In the following excerpt from the chapter, she discusses how the military made forays into controlling the media, and the manner in which it was represented in popular culture.

While a similar pattern of presenting internal conflict as externally driven violence could be found in India too, in Pakistan’s case the issue is a bit more complex. The country’s army is as uncomfortable with ethnic politics as the founding father, who referred to ethnic politics as a ‘menace’ that had to be fought. The ongoing conflict in Baluchistan is a reminder of holes in the fabric of nationalism that Jinnah tried to build or that is now being constructed by the military or some of the right-wing forces. Since expanding the media, the army appears to have very systematically encouraged a security-establishment friendly narrative but has also developed a new nationalist discourse to keep its institution relevant not only for the state but for society as well. With the help of the media, the security establishment has managed to affect people’s thinking. The image of a nationalist soldier, who is highly professional, yet upholds the religious and cultural values of an Islamic republic, have fed the nationalist discourse. In order to influence both the narrative and the discourse, the military has developed an extensive communication structure and a strategy to engage with the formal civil society and with society at large.

There are several tiers of engagement. The most obvious is the ISPR [the directorate of Inter-Services Public Relations] that was originally formed in the early years after the independence of the country in order to disseminate information regarding military affairs. An officer of the rank of a colonel headed it then. Over the years, it has gone through several upgrades, finally resulting in the more recent change under General Raheel Shareef, who upgraded the position of the Director General ISPR to the rank of a Lt General. This could be interpreted as part of Milbus that is creating positions for military personnel. However, there were obvious institutional reasons for doing so, such as guiding the process of discourse generation and its implementation. The ISPR’s upgrade involved financing and supporting the local film industry, theatre and an extensive radio network.

Since 2007, the army has emerged as a major player in the media by spreading its tentacles in all segments of the industry. Although every service of the armed forces has its public-relations wing, the ISPR was designed as the main body working for all three services. According to Zaman, the PR agency developed separate units to engage with radio, television and other forms of media. As far as its main role of interacting with the journalists is concerned, it has even enhanced its role from just providing information, to courting and influencing journalists. The head of the ISPR under Kayani was even known to send birthday cakes to some from military inc. to media inc. elite journalists. However, the agency was also known for intimidation such as directing television channels regarding their choice of news-programme anchors, and in certain cases, even their choice of guests. Sources talked about interference from the ISPR particularly on issues of deep interest to the army. The role of influencing public opinion was expanded even more in 2010 and 2011 when the ISPR established a private radio network “96 International Radio Network” which was the second largest after the state-run Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation (PBC). The company has continued to operate illegally since September 2011 when the Director General PBC declined permission to set up this company as an independent subsidiary of the state-run radio company. The human-rights activist and lawyer, Asma Jahangir, challenged the ISPR’s role in the Supreme Court asking the government to disclose the number of channels that the military PR agency ran. By September 2016, nothing had come out of the court case. At around the same time, a major step was taken through making efforts to rebuild the weak and fledgling industry that could not compete with Bollywood. It is believed that the ISPR support to film-makers is limited to providing logistic support. Such support includes providing manpower and even camera units, which according to sources in the film industry, were imported by the PR agency. However, the army’s interest has extended beyond logistics as was obvious from its presence in a meeting organised to discuss the revival of the film industry. Brigadier ranking officers in uniform who were present during the meeting instructed film industry stakeholders to make films that did not challenge national interest, which translated as supporting a narrative that challenged the traditional elite, painting the military in bright colours, portraying India as an enemy and following the army line on sensitive issues. Subsequently, films such as Waar produced in 2013 blamed India for terrorism inside the country and painted the military as a saviour. It also set the tone in terms of spreading the security establishment’s perspective on the highly divisive issue of the construction of the Kalabagh Dam, presenting any opposition to the idea as propaganda by India. Another film, Maalik, produced in 2016, built the idea of vigilante justice by a group of retired army officers. The ISPR also made its mark in theatre by financing a play Siachen on its war fought with India on top of the Siachen Glacier. Though it entered new areas of the media mentioned above, the PR agency did not invest in setting up its own television channel that was probably due to the fact that it could not enjoy the equivalent monopoly situation that it did in radio broadcasting. In any case, it had several ways of influencing news programmes in every private television channel. It is quite common to see news-programme anchors parrot the ISPR version during a discussion on Pakistani–US relations or other sensitive matters.

While the ISPR may be the most overt form of the army’s interaction with the media and civil society, there are others levels of engagement, such as the ISI’s media wing. The intelligence agency independently sought both domestic and international journalists and academics to inform them or convert them to the military’s point of view. The media wing contacted the author in January 2009 to meet the chief of the ISI, a request that was declined by the latter. However, it had many other successful experiences that included hosting foreign experts on Pakistan. Providing these people with the military’s perspective during the war on terror was essential from two standpoints. First, to provide an army-sympathetic version that countered the accusation of Pakistan military’s collusion with the Taliban and other terrorists groups like the Lashkare Tayyaba (LeT) accused of carrying out attacks in Mumbai, India in 2008. Such publicity was critical to negotiate relations with the USA. Second, to convince foreign experts regarding the military’s superior capabilities and posit it as the most performing institution of the state. But the ISI’s role was not limited to soft diplomacy. Often, fingers were pointed at it for engaging in the coercive treatment of journalists. The killing of the journalist Saleem Shahzad, or the torture of another journalist, Umer Cheema, were attributed to the intelligence agency. Sources even talked about the agency using its own death squads to eliminate people in conflict zones such as Gilgit-Baltistan, especially those suspected of having been trained by Iran. Conscious of psy-ops as a new trend in warfare, the ISI also created a separate cyber-security wing, with the purpose of not just securing military or state data, but also to influence trends on social media, hack websites and to mine the data of enemy states. The message, spread through the popular media site Facebook, used the lyrics from a Nancy Sinatra song to lighten the real missive that politicians of questionable reputation such as Asif Ali Zardari and Altaf Hussain would be thrashed by the army. Such propaganda seems to have caught on, especially among the growing extended middle class in the country that began to believe in this narrative. The fact that this middle class was unable to push out these politicians through the electoral process has helped to build the military’s image even further as a possible saviour.

Despite adopting such tactics, the military’s PR machinery could not effectively gag social media that is far more independent than traditional forms of the media in most countries. This frustration was experienced, from military inc. to media inc. despite the intervention by its information technology team to plant its narrative and battle opposing perspective. In August 2016, a weak parliament led by the Pakistan Muslim League (N) passed a controversial cyber security bill called the Prevention of Electronic Crime Bill 2015 that civil society and human-rights activists believe is regressive in content and could result in the state curbing dissent. Any criticism of the country, the judiciary, religion and armed forces is liable to punishment.

A bid to control cyber space seemed to be part of a larger agenda to capture discourse formulation, which was one of the primary goals of the military’s PR exercise. This is also one of the reasons why the ISI and its officer cadre take an interest in engaging with young students and scholars in national and foreign universities from Pakistan or working on it. For instance, in the UK, which is a major hub of Pakistani students both from the country and the diaspora, the ISI officer in the High Commission was observed influencing student activities in the university. In 2009 and 2010, the agency even tried to plant a conglomerate of Pakistan student societies around British universities. In another instance in 2014, the Pakistan Society at Oxford University was forced to invite military friendly journalists to its event. In similar fashion, its sister organization, the ISPR sought out non-Pakistani, usually Anglo-Saxon scholars, to write military friendly books. Furthermore, during Kayani’s era, the ISI allegedly established a fund to finance scholars in American think-tanks. This was to generate sympathy for Pakistan among American policy makers and opinion makers. A bigger programme was launched in the country as a result of which there was a proliferation of think-tanks in the capital Islamabad. Although these are private entities, the perspective followed on national security does not deviate from the military’s point of view.

This is an excerpt from the second edition of Ayesha Siddiqa's Military Inc., published by Penguin RandomHouse India. The excerpt has been edited and condensed.