Media and national security
Pakistan has been grappling with national security issues for more than a decade with internal security being the major cause of concern. Terrorist attacks have destabilised the country to a large extent. Subsequent governments have attempted evolving a comprehensive national security policy to eradicate the scourge of terrorism as well as tackling the related challenges of sectarian, religious and ethnic clashes. The current dispensation in the corridors of power in Islamabad made an electoral promise of formulating a new security policy, which would encompass strategies for countering insurgency, terror attacks and curb intolerance. Eight months since the PML-N took up the mantle of governance, the new security policy is still a work in progress. In all fairness, a broad spectrum national security policy should not be formulated sans due diligence.
The genesis of the problem lies in the fact that non-state-actors were groomed at the behest of the US during the Cold War. While defending US core interests, Pakistan became oblivious towards its own and is now paying dearly with tremendous losses of life and property. While the government is inviting input from various stakeholders towards the conceptualisation of the new security policy, one essential contributor should be the media. Throughout history, the institution of the security forces, mainly the military, and the media have been at odds with each other. The military is perennially popular, but is at its best in battle and functions like a conditioned athlete. However, it too, has its share of incompetence. So, when the military makes mistakes, they can be monumental. Besides territory, a large number of lives can be lost. The military is disciplined, hierarchical, and lives within a homogenous, closed culture that can be — and often is — hostile to outsiders.
The news media is often unpopular with the brass, for it functions independently, without rules, regulations or even a code of conduct except for some that are self-imposed. The media — print, electronic and social — has a variety of interests of its own and set goals to be achieved. It has its share of rogues, incompetents and avaricious vultures. Yet, at its best, the media provides the nation with a vital service it can get nowhere else.
When the two institutions meet during a conflict, clashes are inevitable. The media wants to tell the story and the security forces want to win the war and keep casualties to a minimum. The media wants freedom, no censorship, total access and the capability to get its stories out to audiences quickly. The security forces, on the other hand, want control. The greatest fear of a military commander in a pre-invasion scenario is that something might leak out that would tip off the enemy. Otherwise too, surprise is the most potent weapon in the commander’s armoury. On the other hand, the media fears that the military might stifle news coverage so as to enhance its public image or cover up mistakes. These are fundamental differences that will never change. At times, the security forces and the ‘patriotic’ media have worked together in harmony but usually animosity tarnishes their relationship. There is definitely a need for better understanding between the two. A perfect cooperative union of the media and the security forces is likely impossible, given the differences in missions and personalities but there are wise heads in both institutions who recognise the mutual need.
The media is hungry for stories while the security forces need to tell their story. Above all, they need public support. The media can tell their story and if there is a rapport and understanding, they can tell it well and effectively. Both institutions will work better during the tension and fog of war if they learn to get along in peacetime. The face of the war prevailing in Pakistan, however, has changed and so have the rules of media engagement. In the war on terror, the media, which previously faced the risk of suffering only collateral damage, has now become a lucrative target for the terror mongers. Recent lethal attacks on media personnel indicate that the terrorists believe that they will get better coverage of their heinous agenda if they target the media itself.
The fact remains that the media is an essential component of national security and can play the role of a force multiplier for the security forces. Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the US, who also led his country through its bloodiest civil war in history, stated, “Public opinion is everything. With it nothing can fail, without it nothing can succeed.” The lesson should not be lost on the current legislators in Pakistan when they put their collective wisdom together to evolve the national security policy and ensure that the media gets its due importance.