In his Distant Voices (1994), John Pilger narrates how a Soviet intellectual got the shock of his journalistic life during his visit to the US in the mid-1980s. He spent a few days in New York studying American print and electronic media. He concluded: in the Soviet Union, we suppress media to block divergent ideas. In the US, despite an immense profusion of media, there is such a remarkable unanimity of opinion on critical issues! Despite so many claims of freedom of expression, the American media, he felt, was complicit with the American government over various state agendas, which led to human rights abuses and suppression of freedoms in and outside the US.
If the same Soviet intellectual could visit Pakistan today, he would find that in Pakistan, the (electronic and print) media’s pandering to and unanimity of view(s) over the Pakistani military’s ‘causes and needs’ has made the American media’s complicity look like a minor coincidence. When it comes to the military, especially the Pakistan Army, the media finds, hears, or sees no evil, and smells no rat. Here is the weekly round-up in its chronology that I watched on a channel on Friday, April 15 (the same news items were aired by other channels too, but in this short column I cannot enumerate all of them):
1. Pakistan’s foreign debts are now 58 billion dollars.
2. India has set its sights on Gilgit-Baltistan now. After aiding and abetting the Baloch insurgents, India has set itself a new goal to cause Pakistan’s disintegration. It has started supporting separatist elements in Gilgit-Baltistan. The Gilgit-Baltistani terrorists plan to hold protest rallies for the rights of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. The first objective India wants to achieve through these terrorists is to block the trade route between Pakistan and China. The US has also decided to support these terrorists. Soon American government-sponsored meetings will be held in the US [the channel did not identify in which cities] in which expatriate terrorists of Gilgit-Baltistani origin will kick off a campaign for ‘independent Balwaristan’.
3. The ISI chief has told the CIA boss directly that Pakistan will not accept the drone attacks.
4. The American government has said [apparently, only after the ISI chief had left] that it will continue to launch drone attacks.
5. Iran offloaded passengers from an airplane and arrested a suspected terrorist. A Pakistani official delegation, on board, was also offloaded.
6. Saudi Arabia will provide a monorail service to Pakistani pilgrims. Of all the South Asian countries, it is only Pakistanis who will have this facility.
7. In the forthcoming budget, there will be 18 percent increase in the money allocated for the military.
Let us take a closer look. The media is telling Pakistanis that they are insecure. India, the eternal enemy, is closing in on us from both sides, i.e., Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan. The US, more of an enemy than a friend, is also complicit in the conspiracy to break up Pakistan. Iran offloaded the Pakistani delegation. The insinuation of an inimical Iran is subtle, but cannot be missed. Iran evokes fear.
But then it is not just the enemies without who are lurking out there. The ‘Balwaristan terrorists’ are about to start subversion. Another subtle insinuation: Gilgit-Baltistan has a majority of Shias, and the present provincial government is dominated by the Shias. Iran, the country that offloaded our delegation, is also a Shia majority state.
Nevertheless, there is good news too. The ISI chief went to the States and returned, and it was only after his return that the Americans dared say that they would continue to send the drones. Saudi Arabia is good news. The Pakistani viewers should be thankful that Saudi blessings during the Hajj will be showered on Pakistanis only. The last news item on the weekly round up: 18 percent hike in the budget for the ‘defense of the country’. Education and health put together will not receive more than two percent of the forthcoming budget as opposed to 70 percent reserved for the ‘defense of the country’.
The real test of the media loyalty to the Pakistan Army, however, came on 2 May when the American Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden. The killing itself is insignificant compared to what is at stake: the credibility of the Army and its intelligence wing the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). He was killed in the safest possible place in Pakistan. His castle was less than a kilometer from Pakistan’s premier military academy. Before any Pakistan could hear or say that the Army had been sheltering and protecting Osama, the media launched a nonstop blitzkrieg to divert Pakistani people’s attention to other issues by scaring them with the spectre of the ‘evil’ forces out to destroy Pakistan. Hundreds of examples can be cited here, but a few representative ones should suffice.
One anchor who can see the suffering of the people of Gaza from the shore of Karachi, but cannot see the (Pakistani) people of Parachinar being daily killed by the Army-backed Haqqani Taliban, went hysterical, telling his viewers that the Americans jammed Pakistan’s radars when they raided Osama’s castle. The issue in his opinion was not where Osama was found and who sheltered him, but the fact that now “the Americans will look for Pakistan’s secret defense-related (i.e., nuclear) installations in the name of searching for terrorists. Our [nuclear] sites are not safe anymore.”
“How long would the Americans continue to violate the sovereignty of Pakistan?” thundered another anchor, “As if drone attacks in Pakistan’s northern areas were not a blatant violation of our sovereignty! Now they are attacking us so close to our capital!” An anchor, a Taliban apologist who makes strange claims about how people think and react vis-à-vis the Americans, speculated about which Pakistanis had been collaborating with the Americans - implying that the civilian government of President Zardari had facilitated the action, and by doing so had undermined the Army. Yet another anchor said: “I am standing on a pile of ashes and a volcano is raging inside me! Out national honor has been violated!”
Not a single anchor said that the Army, or some rogue elements in the Army, should be held accountable for harbouring Osama. No one asked a basic moral question: When you have taken billions of dollars from the Americans and promised to act against the terrorists, why would you support the super terrorist? Is it not pure cheating taking someone’s money and acting against them? But, no. In order to divert people’s attention from the culprits who gave sanctuary to Osama, our anchors in their ‘love’ of Pakistan and its ‘sacred institutions’ (i.e., the Army and the ISI) have sacrificed all norms of professional integrity and ethics.
The inevitable conclusion, therefore, is this: Who needs education and health when the very security of the ‘country’ is at risk? What is the point going to school or to hospital when the enemies within and without are operating? The very idea behind the security state is that civilians are expendable, that there is no need to build civilian institutions because we are permanently invaded, that when the whole world is your enemy, you must build an almighty army. National security must be safeguarded all the time even if the people end up as illiterate and in poor health. A country without people is acceptable, but what is a country without defense capabilities? Thus, education and health are a small price to pay for the sake of the ‘country’! This reasoning is why the media never takes the army to task for not allowing the government to audit the billions it squeezes from the exchequer, which belong to the people of Pakistan.
In the same book, Pilger writes: “Without the loyalty of The New York Times and other august (mostly liberal) media institutions ‘of record’, the criminal invasion of Iraq might not have happened and a million people would be alive today.” In Pilger’s style, I would like to say: without the loyalty of the Pakistani media, the army would not have been able to get away with billions of rupees every year in the name of national security leaving millions of Pakistanis without proper access to education and health. Think about it: 17 million Pakistani kids do not go to school because there are not any they can go to; and one government hospital caters for about half a million Pakistanis.