Media and the armed forces -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Media and the armed forces

Ikram Sehgal

The new way of making war, the projection of “soft power,” is cynical in that it involves millions of people in the persuasion effort. The lords of this new media war are the communication and image experts closely tied to political power, producing a sophisticated kind of communication in comparison with classic state propaganda. Having great financial resources they use the same psychology employed by advertisement groups to successfully launch a product on the market.

Peace is an instrument of continuing war by other means, a constant and unrelenting battle against one’s enemies (and friends) alike. Nik Gowing’s “Skyful of Lies” and Black Swans is an excellent primer in defining a new dimension in the “soft” projection of power and to understand the “new art of war.” The military must engage the media in every endeavour but national interest must take precedence for the media over all other issues. Military commanders must establish and communicate objectives of military operations to the media and accept media as part of future combat environment, informed military analysts being employed to ensure accurate commentaries. How a strategy is conceived, nurtured and implemented “to win a battle without bloodying swords” (Tsun Tse Tzu) is by itself a study, the media (and now the Internet) can be used and/or misused.

As the fourth pillar in support of the essential tripod of government, the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, the “honest broker” role of the “Fourth Estate” is one of its most important functions. People need the media to provide them with a fair and accurate report of events and policies. They can only feel involved in important decisions if they are part of the process.

All forms of media can be used to multiply force, the Internet being one of the most important force-multipliers easily available. The commander must consider using the media as a combat multiplier in a wide variety of areas within his operational design – communicating the objective, boosting friendly morale, executing effective psyops, deceiving the enemy, and enhancing intelligence collection.

In today’s technology-driven scenario, where “wars can be won or lost on the world’s television screens,” the operational commander will have to be proactive and innovative in dealing with the media. Commanders have always tried to acquire accurate information; the modern IT appears to provide a greater opportunity to clear away the fog than ever before. Deception, disinformation, and the use of mass media are also of increasing value as military tools.

As an element of national power, the media plays an important role in high-level decision-making and strategy formulation. Within the informational element of power it provides another weapon to attack the enemy psychologically as well as to gain public support within one’s own nation. The media can affect the morale of enemy soldiers and that of the citizens of their nations. Their support will wane if they are unhappy with the political-military situation. Armed forces naturally strive for “information dominance” or “knowledge superiority” in any conflict, information being important to victory.

The Indians have been very successful keeping strategic harmony in their media campaign against us; their policy being “conversionary” – i.e., attacking the foundations of our ideology, so that we ourselves began to question the two-nation theory – and “divisive” – i.e., creating misunderstanding between the federating units on one issue or the other: e.g., the problem of sharing of water. India has some very good and seasoned journalists, but in any conflict with Pakistan they follow the government brief without exception. There is clearly decentralisation of propaganda at the tactical (opportunity) level. Because of the recurring and constant cacophony, the foreign news media picks up Indian-fed stories and the world perception labels Pakistan as a “terrorist-exporting” nation.

A concerted campaign was recently set in motion after the Bin Laden affair in Abbottabad. The foreign media has been especially vocal, condemning and defaming the army and the ISI, and a section of our own media followed suit. The ISI was also blamed for the Saleem Shahzad kidnapping and murder. There is a method to the madness behind this motivated psychological warfare and propaganda, with the environment in the media being methodically polluted and vitiated for degradation of the army and the ISI, a key plank in the objective to rid Pakistan of its nuclear capability. The civil and military media units have not done a good job in projecting the army’s image abroad.

The media-armed forces relations has been one of constant battle. Nevertheless a bond still exists between them. The differences in missions and personalities making a perfect co-operative union unlikely, both institutions still recognise the mutual need. The media is hungry for stories while the military needs to tell its story: above all, the military needs public support. The media can tell the military’s story and if there is a rapport and understanding, the media can tell it well and effectively. Both institutions will work better during tension and fog of war if they learn to get along in peacetime.

There must be a balance between the people’s right to know and the armed forces’ need for security, this balance has shifted in response to changes in communication technology, public opinion, and the vulnerability of troops in the field. The military always will require some measure of wartime secrecy. While giving guidelines to his officers on dealing with the media, a US Centcom chief enumerated four golden principles: (a) Don’t let them (media persons) intimidate you; (b) No law tells you to answer every question; (c) Don’t answer any question that may help the enemy; and (d) Don’t ever lie to the people.

Experience demonstrates that extreme secrecy affects public opinion and thus civilian oversight. The military and media will continue facing challenges concerning appropriate levels of news coverage, particularly as communication technology becomes even more powerful and warfare continues to evolve from conventional combat to more guerrilla and terrorist forms. The media wants freedom, no censorship, total access and the capability to get their stories out to their audiences quickly. Conversely, the military wants control. The greatest fear of a military commander in a pre-operation scenario is that something might leak out that would tip off the enemy.

As a coherent platform for our national security strategy our present media policy is quite impractical and is tilted inwards as opposed to the requirement of being focussed externally. Everyone, including the media in Pakistan, must sustain and motivate and not resort to self-flagellation. Criticism, if any, should be well conceived and objectively targeted without spoiling the reputation of the armed forces as a whole. We must restructure, reorganise and rejuvenate our media to project our real image abroad by coalescing and force-multiplying the talent and potential of the private sector.

There is a great need for better understanding between the media and the armed forces. While democracy is a must to cement Pakistan together, the media must recognise the hard fact that the armed forces are the single most positive factor for peace, tranquillity and a strong, stable Pakistan.

(Extract from a lecture at the Pakistan Navy War College, Lahore.)

The writer is a defence and political analyst. Email:

Source: The News