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Friday, July 22, 2011

Terrorism and Pakistani media

The revolution in information technology, from the transistor through widespread digitisation, deeply networked communications, as well as, the revolutionary changes in the employment of firepower have profoundly influenced analysts and planners and has completely changed the conduct of conflict, warfare and their reporting. The use of cell phones, SMS, Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media have added another dimension altogether.

Conflict reporting has undergone tremendous changes along with the advancement in expertise. The Gulf War of 1991 afforded the world its first glimpse of the future of warfare.  Millions around the globe were treated to real-time images of precision–guided bombs annihilating targets in downtown Baghdad, learned of satellite uplinks from the battlefield that provided real-time connectivity, and applauded the ability of Stealth aircraft to ensure aerial dominance.  Everyone seemed to understand that something was different about this “Video-game war”.  
A new dimension was added to conflict reporting as of 9/11: “the war against terror”. The Lal Masjid—Jamia Hafsa episode is a classic example where the “enemy” was local home grown clerics and the students of their male and female seminaries, highly indoctrinated, equipped with a cache of weapons and perhaps aided by hard core militants. Whether the clerics were holding innocent women and children hostages or they chose to stay back in the complex serving as human shields is now any one’s guess since none survived the final onslaught.
The role of the media becomes critical, because allegiance, emotions and even loyalties were divided. This is where the media was tested and found wanting, perhaps because of lack of experience. In its bid to outdo each other and report “breaking news” first, the media was initially over exuberant and took unnecessary risks. This provided the government the excuse to physically banish the media to a safe distance. It led to speculations, suspicions and conspiracy theories.
The media had to depend on scraps of information provided by the government/military spokesmen in press briefings. They did not complain. On the other hand, media-savvy Abdur Rashid Ghazi used the situation to his advantage, talking directly to the media incessantly via cell phone rather than the negotiators. This swayed the media’s and its audience’s opinion. Media even took up the dubious and unethical role of mediators, in some cases and abandoned its impartiality and became a party to the conflict.
After the Lal Masjid episode, the war on terror gained an unprecedented momentum, and the role of the media also started becoming more defined and demanding. Since media insists on taking the front seat in the war on terror, some media practitioners paid dearly with death or injuries. The October 18, 2007 Peoples’ Party motorcade bringing Benazir Bhutto from the airport to her rally was targeted by bombers, who took a heavy toll of lives. Benazir Bhutto barely escaped but among the 130 dead were two media persons.
As the suicide bombing and terror attacks gained impetus, so did the rising toll of human lives. The terror mongers too became media savvy and would directly distribute press releases and video footage to the media. Slowly and gradually they started earning the sympathy of the media, which in turn transferred to the ordinary Pakistanis too. A stage came that terror organization spokespersons were available to the talk show anchors live on their program via cell phones. The respect and reverence, with which these terrorist spokespersons were addressed, indicated the turning tide of opinion in their favour since some of them were good orators and would present their case with eloquence.
This situation continued despite Benazir Bhutto being assassinated in broad daylight. Shots were fired at her after a political rally at Liaquat Bagh, and a suicide bomb was detonated immediately following the shootingBaitullah Mehsud, the Tehrik-e-Taliban (Pakistan) leader claimed responsibility for her assassination and a number of Al-Qaeda leaders too; however, the resentment against the terrorists still did not build up the way it should have and perhaps the media was responsible for it. The situation however changed overnight, when the video of a woman being flogged in the former resort of Swat, where the government signed an agreement with a pro-Taliban cleric to allow Sharia law was released to the media.   
Apparently, filmed on a mobile phone, the video shows two men pinning down a burka-clad woman by her feet and shoulders, while a bearded man in a turban flogs her 34 times with a whip as she screams in agony. The media finally began to portray the hideous face of the enemy, which was misusing Islam to instill fear in the hearts of people, with complete disregard to their dignity and self-respect.
The tide began to turn but somehow the media still believes in selective reporting. The gory video clips of young Sarfaraz Shah, an accused being shot at point blank range by Sindh Rangers in Karachi, touched every soul that watched the video clips being shown ceaselessly on national and international media.
The Kharotabad incident of FC personnel killing five Chechens including three women and its blood-spattered video too left a deep impact. It goes to the Pakistan Army’s credit that it took prompt action against the perpetrators, who are being tried in local courts like common criminals.
However, on the other instance, the grisly footage showing the execution of 15 captured Pakistan policemen by a firing squad has been released by the Taliban and is available on You-Tube and other links but has been reported by the print media yet the electronic media is curiously silent on it.
The Pakistan Army and security personnel have borne the brunt of the terror attacks and have fought valiantly, never demurring to make the supreme sacrifice of their lives. The media, especially the electronic media needs to take cognizance of their gallant deeds and laud their valour and not ignore them. The war on terror has brought out the best in our brave security personnel; it should also make our media practitioners more objective and not selective.

S M Hali

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