Is media priming up for a blowback if talks fail?

In recent days a few stories have appeared in the foreign press about how at least one mainstream English newspaper in Pakistan has been forced to exercise in-house censorship in response to threats by Taleban.

It has also been suggested that the Taleban are clever enough to note that despite limited readership, it is the English language press which enjoys greater influence with the powers-that-be.

When a known TV anchor recently assured a Taleban spokesman during an audio beeper that their view will be given due space, the sense that while this was apparently premised on the principle of fair coverage, but in effect, symptomatic of a deeper malaise was palpable.

One of the standout features of the dodgy peace dialogue between the government and the Taleban is the open-ended coverage of what the intelligentsia blithely described as "Taleban talking to the Taleban".

This is a worrying development since the extremists have used this public space — in the garb of peace talks — to only advance their narrative and done so with an in-your-face mien, no less.

Consider. Maulana Abdul Aziz, the once disgraced cleric of the capital's famous Red Mosque, is rehabilitated to the extent that he could hold a presser to announce he was quitting the dialogue and later warning that the state had better be prepared for the consequences since the Pakistani Taleban boasted the services of 500 female suicide bombers!

These pronouncements were made before a posse of print and television reporters as well as photo journalists in the heart of the Pakistani capital with gun-toting bodyguards standing behind Aziz.

A more audacious exposition of militant ideology mocking at the state in full public glare and being televised with little responsibility is hard to imagine in any other nation-state in this day and age.

But there may be a greater threat round the corner, which few, if at all, have even taken cognizance of.

Is the media unwittingly priming itself for the blowback as hopes of a peace deal between the government and the Taleban fade?

Has the media, running a frenzied circus around talks, even factored the repercussions of a failure and the likely subsequent military operation?

Given that the "messenger" will then be used, bullied and threatened to conform to the respective agendas advanced by the stakeholders, is the unprepared media bracing up for the high noon?

Three Express Group employees were killed by Taleban in January in Karachi with a blunt warning for the media to fall in line.

In the wake of the killings, Taleban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan told its TV host on phone that the channel was "warned" earlier to "stay away" from propaganda against the Taleban.

Consumed by the theatre of now deadlocked talks, the imminent threat of what the media may have in store should the dialogue fail has virtually taken a backseat.

The grenade attack in Karachi outside the offices housing Aaj TV and Business Recorder, the recovery of an undetonated grenade outside the building hosting Waqt TV and Nawai Waqt and the gunfire at the AbbTak TV DSNG van — all in a day — on February 17 have amply demonstrated how under siege the Pakistani media is.

The media is considered by a resentful security establishment, the government, and, of late, extremists as the last frontier. But while they are loathe to the media's power, all of them want to use it in a pronounced propaganda war.

It is well-nigh impossible to tell how much, if, the government is prepared to launch a full-scale offensive against the Taleban and, then, to sustain the fight — it took Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif months to get down the talks route and even now his government betrays a certain fear about the blowback particularly, in the Punjab if his hand is eventually forced.

Launching an operation necessarily involves a major public drive to build and sustain a momentum that flows into the overall counter-terrorism strategy. This is where the media's role assumes critical import and is central to ultimately winning the war in the mind.

But what is the electronic media actually doing?

A few anchors did summon courage to call a spade a spade, especially after the 23 kidnapped Frontier Constabulary were beheaded, but the electronic media overall, has still not been able to draw the line in terms of what is sensible and responsible coverage.

Is it forced — the fear of reprisal pegging them back and therefore, lending themselves to a safety-first approach — or is it just a case of Taleban having penetrated the ranks to find sympathisers here, too?
If it is indeed the first, then there is enough reason for the media houses to sit down and draw a strategy to deal with the present and clear danger.

The author is a freelance contributor 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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