Pakistan's Praetorian Press Corps

Pakistan's Praetorian Press Corps
There exists a particular type of journalist in Pakistan whose claim to fame is their network of dubious relationships with the military and country’s intelligence services. They try to get chummy with whoever is the top man in GHQ, praising him with epithets such as “modern day Khalid bin Waleed” or “Pakistani Napoleon.” In fact, these journalists act as carriers of rumors and whispering campaigns—two tools of the military's massive propaganda machinery, with the help of which they painstakingly construct the image of every incoming military commander. These media men are better understood as lobbyists than journalists. They reach out to everyone who matters in Islamabad’s political, cultural and social life with subtle messages from the nerve center of the military establishment.

Islamabad, as the capital city of Pakistan, is always in the grip of a rumor mill. There exists a social space in the city where everybody wants their message to be heard. This is a pool of information from which every person draws their political lessons. Whether they are foreign diplomats, leading politicians, journalists, intellectuals and businessmen, everybody feeds their own agenda into this space and everybody draws information from this pool to pursue their political, journalistic, diplomatic agenda and business agenda.

The type of journalists being referred to are sources of information and rumors for this pool of information in this social space. I have been offered this informal carrier status by senior military officials on countless occasions. Every time I refused to enter this network. Not because I am politically very pious, but because I am so busy working to make ends meet at the financial level that I don’t think I can get time for lobbying on anybody’s behalf. The culture of sycophancy that prevails in the upper echelons of the Pakistani military facilitates the rise to prominence of this type of journalist. Some of them are now occupying key positions in the media industry, for the acquisition of which their connections with the military and intelligence services have played no small part. “The king is dead, long live the king,” is the golden principle of these type of journalists, which they faithfully implement every three years, or six, depending on the extension granted to the COAS, by dumping the outgoing and celebrating the military expertise, gallantry and sometimes physical appearance of the incoming. The outgoing could be declared a property dealer in the guise of a military commander. The brave ones among these sycophants even demand court martial for the outgoing.

Now a senior journalist is demanding the court martial of the outgoing COAS, General Qamar Javed Bajwa for something he said while he was in office. He made a remark that tanks in the inventory of the Pakistan Army are not functional and that it would not be possible to fight the Indian army in such conditions. According to this journalist, there were 25 journalists present in the room when General Bajwa made these comments. It means out of the 25, not a single journalist dared to report what was being said by a person who was publicly identifiable. A military commander saying that his troops don't have enough fuel and functional tanks to fight is big news by all definitions. Why was it not reported? The culture of sycophancy that prevails among the journalists being discussed here is responsible for this. First, the military was and remains a sacred cow. Repeated political battering has damaged its sacred cow status. Then these media men tried to portray the military and its commanders as beyond the reach of ordinary people in society.

Let me give you an example: if a politician had made such a startling comment about any political development in the society in front of 25 journalists, there is no way anybody could have stopped the publication of this comment in the next day's newspaper, even if the session had been off the record. More than two dozen journalists were present in the session in which General Bajwa spoke, and yet none of them reported his comment. The question is why? Because military commanders are perceived—thanks to sycophants in media and politics—as above and beyond the reach of society. They are perceived as someone who is beyond reproach and beyond questioning.

This disclosure by General Bajwa that the army didn’t have functional tanks and enough fuel, is not at all startling for the country, which is on the verge of default and is paying its bureaucracy out of the funds borrowed from friendly countries. Many times, the Indian media has reported even more startling disclosures about malfunctioning in their own military machine. The heavens didn’t move an inch. Critical introspection of your military preparedness before relevant forums is a routine exercise across the world.

But one could only doubt the mental abilities of General Bajwa that he chose an assembly of Pakistani journalists for this disclosure, who are more adept at turning every serious piece of information into sensational headlines. Withholding this piece of information for more than a year and releasing it after the retirement of General Bajwa appears to have a motive which is hidden from public eyes. In other words, what these senior journalists are doing now is not at all an exercise in transparency.

The first rule of journalism is that it should be an activity that is completely transparent. The question is why these journalists withheld this piece of information for over a year? Why did they choose this particular timing to release the information? This piece of information is not innocent. It will surely have political implications. If your journalistic activity is aimed at achieving some political objective, then what you are doing can’t be described as journalism. It is politics. And secondly, what you have done by revealing General Bajwa’s statement is not an exercise in transparency - because we as consumers of the information can never ascertain what motivated you to withhold this information for more than a year and then release it during political upheaval.

Ironically, General Bajwa’s comment about the absence of functional tanks and lack of fuel for logistics of the troops should come to us as an eye-opener. Our manufacturing capacity, our productivity and our level of technological advancement all cast a doubt on our ability to sustain a modern military machine. We import a major proportion of oil consumed in our society from the Gulf, and that too sometimes on deferred payment facilities offered by our friends in the Arab world. Let there be no doubt that modern wars are not fought on borrowed oil. Our military almost completely depends on foreign technology to meet its technological needs and requirements. The meagre amount of weapons systems that we produce indigenously doesn’t meet the requirements of sustaining a modern military machine that could match the Indian military, which again is only partially dependent on Western military technology. The Al-Khalid tank that we produced at Heavy Industry Taxila (HIT) failed to meet our requirements to meet the challenge posed by the induction of state-of-the-art Russian tanks into the Indian military in the 1990s. In the period from the 1990s to today, the Pakistan Army has had to import both Russia and Chinese modern tanks to meet the requirements of its land forces. My own understanding is that Pakistan tank formations are not at all lacking in modern weapons systems. So, the basic question is what exactly did General Bajwa tell the assembly of 25 journalists?

What is being reported now could be an example of Chinese whispers, or could be a case of non-experts translating a military reality coming from the mouth of a military commander into a statement couched in layman’s language and designed to meet the requirement of a sensational headline.

The rest of the revelations made by senior journalists about their interaction with General Bajwa didn’t come as a surprise. General Bajwa was making policy statements on talks with India during his tenure as army chief. He took a personal interest in opening the Kartarpur corridor for Sikh pilgrimages at the Pakistan-India border. He could have again made a plan to facilitate Prime Minister Modi’s visit to a Hindu religious shrine on the Balochistan coast. He was going out of the way to project Pakistan as a connectivity hub, with some of his subordinate military commanders going to the extent of inviting India to join CPEC.

Even without this revelation, many commentators have pointed out that at the time General Bajwa offered talks to India, he was overstepping his jurisdiction. He had no authority to make policy statements. But remember, he was making these policy statements after the military had sent a democratically elected Prime Minister home. Rather - he was not sent home, he was sent to jail. Another Prime Minister riding on the shoulders of military commanders had just landed in the Prime Minister house. General Bajwa had conquered the political space with the assistance of a popular political party, which was playing second fiddle to the military’s commanders. General Bajwa was no ordinary military commander. He was the conqueror; foreign policy his forte.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.