By Syed Ali Zia Jaffery
Media has become an important plank for states to sell narratives globally as well as for domestic consumption. If anything, the media is the outer layer that advances one state’s narrative, in the process countering that of the adversaries. The importance of the media at a time when the nature of war is constantly changing can never be ignored. Moreover, with terrorism and insurgencies increasing across the globe, the role of the media can hardly be ignored.
More than conventional armies, terrorist organizations use the tools of communication to put across their message and obtain the greatest source of its strength; loyal fighters. A lot can be penned on the matter but in a nutshell, it is important to assert that in regards to terrorism, media must manage its flow of information carefully.
Terror is the operative part of the word “terrorism”. Miscreants thrive in spreading terror by killing and wreaking other kinds of havoc. But even otherwise, outfits use means of communication to strike terror in the hearts of their audience. The effective use of the radio by Mullah Fazlullah, the leader of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan(TTP), was instrumental in instilling fear among the people of Swat. The picturesque valley was rid of militants in a very highly successful military operation in 2009.
The main motive of any terrorist activity is to strike fear. Thereby implying that terrorists’ mission is given a great boost when scores of people constantly see their brazen activities. Herein, we bring in the discussion of free media in the mix.
Last week, Pakistani security forces launched an operation against religiously-motivated protesters in Islamabad. The LEAs (law enforcement agencies) were unable to evict the mob-like crowd; in fact, violent protesters were out on the streets in various nerve-centers of Pakistan. According to subsequent reports by the police, the crowd was ably supported by sympathizers from the surrounding areas.
The government banned news channels across the country. Also, social media websites were also blocked. This led to a flurry of criticism from the media fraternity and the opposition. While some called it as an attack on freedom of speech, others said that the ban caused needless panic in an even otherwise fluid environment.
However, the extensive media coverage that was given to the fiery protesters and their leader since they perched themselves in Islamabad had done considerable damage. The firebrand leader of the crowd, Khadim Hussain Rizvi incited violence and uttered profanities but he did it in a way which attracted support. Rizvi said that the government challenged the finality of Prophethood; a sensitive matter for all Muslims. Gullible people didn’t understand how Rizvi himself was disrespecting the greatest man to have ever graced the planet. Regardless, the message was powerful. Also, it was media’s coverage that helped Rizvi swell his supporters before the crackdown.
Finally, when the operation started, the media covered it live. The optics were disturbing even for common citizens; the media posited as if innocuous protesters were being targeted by ruthless policemen. That was certainly not the case; if anything, zealots armed with batons and stones charged at the police. The non-stop media coverage where some channels went on to call the operation a “brutal campaign against innocent lovers of the Prophet (PBUH)”, helped garner sympathies. Protests started across the country, leading to fear of further ruckus and mayhem.
Apart from operational and tactical lapses, irresponsible media coverage helped the mob rile up people against the state. The consequences were least desirable. The Army, in a bid to avoid bloodshed, was called in to facilitate a deal where the all-powerful state of Pakistan had to succumb to the pressure exerted by Rizvi and his followers.
The situation would have been different had the media been mindful of its responsibilities while covering a religiously-loaded event. While many are averse to putting strings, and pulls on the media, it is important to understand that unbridled freedom is an anathema to security. Independent media watcher, Aisha Saeed wrote in one of her articles: “In the “information age,” accuracy and source of any printed or aired material draws upon with skepticism, as media industry is a commercial entity worldwide with agenda of its own. “Information” has become an invisible weapon which in the wrong hands poses a great threat rather than protection of many state interests.”
War has changed in nature and scope since the time when Clausewitz wrote his book “On War”, but his concept of the center of gravity is still relevant. Irresponsible coverage that leads to the glorification of subversive forces certainly gives a great boost to terrorists and saboteurs. With disinformation lying at the heart of hybrid war, media must be free but regulated if a state wants to use this powerful weapon to its advantage.
Syed Ali Zia Jaffery is a Research Analyst and Sub-editor at the Global Village Space. He frequently writes on defense and strategic affairs for various national and international platforms. He tweets: @syedalizia1992