Military-civil-media maze: The plot thickens

Special to Times of Oman

In the long drawn out Pakistani summer, expect a military-civil-media maze that currently dots the landscape to distract from more critical challenges facing the country.

Both the civilian and military leadership as well as voices in the media have spoken loud, if not always necessarily clear, on the gamut of the three-way equation, which saw an interesting genesis because it started from the standpoint of caution, not the standard cavalier fashion that one associates with say, Shahid Afridi, and which, is the more definitive term in the Pakistani matrix.

Consider. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif dithered and dodged with his choice of the new army chief last year — not surprising, for, he was calibrating his decision on staying safe given his troubled history with nearly all the khaki chiefs during his aborted previous stints. It wasn't really until almost the national exasperation had reached the end of its tether that Sharif pressed the buzzer on the-then unassuming General Raheel Sharif.

In due course, it emerged that Prime Minister Sharif was looking for someone not ambitious and ideally, beholden to him, which, in theory, fit like a glove with General Sharif superseding some senior candidates.

In this space, one had written that regardless of such thinking, someone coming in at the head of the world's eighth largest standing army will be inclined to develop warm feet! In the last few months, especially since the prime minister announced peace talks with the Taliban last January, marked friction has developed between the military and civilian leadership, with the former unhappy over a time-consuming and dodgy process which is still going nowhere.

The military was particularly incensed when the Taliban beheaded more than a dozen soldiers long held in their custody to ratchet up their bargaining power with the Sharif government. And even though the military launched surgical strikes on militant hideouts in reprisal, the government continues to engage in talks with the Taliban.
But the matter came to a head over the treatment of former strongman General (retired) Parvez Musharraf — currently, facing a high treason case. While reports abound that Sharif and his namesake, the current army chief, had an understanding that Musharraf would be allowed to quietly leave the country once he is indicted for abrogating the constitution back in 2007, the prime minister decided "to follow the full course of the law".

What upped the ante were statements made by two federal ministers, including significantly, the defence minister, targeting Musharraf in which he was called a traitor, but which the military leadership perceived as an insult.

Even though the ministers subsequently clarified the missive, which they asserted should be seen as a comment on Musharraf's transgressions and not the institution he belonged to, it ruffled feathers no end.

The fissures came out in the open early last month when General Sharif chose the Ghazi Base near Tarbela in addressing the Special Services Group commandos — Musharraf himself was one — to drive home the message that his institution "will resolutely preserve its dignity and institutional pride."

Finally, the prime minister made an attempt at damage-control when during a subsequent military passing out parade at which he was the guest of honour, he urged the cadets to follow the example of General Sharif, whom he eulogised in no uncertain terms.

Just when an apparent thaw appeared to be taking root, an assassination attempt last month on the life of Hamid Mir, Pakistan's most celebrated TV anchor and journalist — which he blamed on Inter-Services Intelligence, the country's premier spy agency — brought into sharp focus the deeply polarised nature of the three pillars of the state.

On top of a civil-military uneasy relationship has developed a further schism in the shape of military-media and a military-civil-media divide now.

With Geo, the flagship private TV channel of the Jang Group — which holds more than half of the entire Pakistani media stakes — going ballistic after Mir alleged ISI's hand and pointedly raised a finger at the spy chief, all hell broke loose.

Since then, in what many suspect is a move too good to be spontaneous, the rivals of Jang Group continue to run a smear campaign against it and in effusive support of the military, in general, and the ISI, in particular. Similarly, posters of allegiance and zealous praise of the two have spruced up overnight with rallies held in some parts of the country to show support for the "national institutions".

In a move pregnant with dangerous repercussions for the media's hard-earned freedom, the military has moved the Pakistan Electronic Media Regularity Authority (Pemra) to ban Geo. Accentuating the divide, the Sharif government has stated its opposition to the ban as a policy, but continues to give conflicting signals regards the final outcome.

The author is a senior journalist based in Islamabad. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.


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