Media Watch | Jingoism in the Media

Jul 2014

Jul 01.2014–If one had to give an account of the commentary generated on mainstream and social media over the past few days, it could be summarized succinctly as an uncritical acceptance of state violence in Pakistan.

As the news about fresh jet bombing in North Waziristan broke a little over a week ago, an outpour of links flooded the social media landscape on Facebook and Twitter. Those of a curious nature inquired if an operation had finally begun. Others expressed concerns that the enemy will now unleash their fury on them. The death toll of the first 100 people went unnoticed.

By mid-day, the operation had a name: “Zarb-e-Azb.” Named after the sword of the Prophet Mohammad, the military assault was now accompanied by hashtags, prayers and mindless jingoism. Even the operation’s most vocal opponent, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chief, Imran Khan, in a turn of events, endorsed it. His tech-savvy followers once again called him the greatest patriot to have graced the Islamic Republic of (urban) Pakistan.

The networked media provided a platform for everyone to express their opinion—no matter how uninformed it was. In the cacophony of mostly pro-state violence voices, there were a few dissenting views that were immediately trolled. The ‘civil war’ was not only celebrated but also trivialized.

Exterminate all the brutes

Swathed by propaganda, the discussion that circulated on the media was predicated upon the following assumptions:

First, that terrorism and militancy is geographically limited to North Waziristan. Second, that, in this territory, exists a homogenous entity called the “Taliban” that the armed forces and the government are finally combating in this “new” and “decisive” operation. Third, all those against the operation are Taliban apologists. Fourth, that, in any war, “collateral damage” is a unfortunate but worth it because the state has no choice but to eliminate the menace in one go.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), may have strongholds in North Waziristan, but it has various chapters all over the country. Therefore, limiting the operation to the agency may be fruitless. Yet, Waziristan is far removed from the national imagination, and it is easy to justify violence there,

The contradiction in dealing with militants is not just limited to geography. The Taliban is not a homogenous force. There are a number of other militant groups – as Islamist in their mindset as the TTP such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), to name a few. There has been little acknowledgement of the complicity of the establishment in the creation of these groups, some of which churn out anti-India/pro-army propaganda; others are involved in ruthless sectarian violence.

Moreover, the overall analysis of the operation, is devoid of historicity. The fact is the roots of state violence in Waziristan go as far back as the colonial era. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the tribesmen of Waziristan were bombed by the British as they rebelled against the colonizers. The militias that rose against the British were actually initially empowered by the colonial regime to protect the borderlands from Russian invasion. Then, they turned against the British. Sound familiar?

During the Cold War, the militias in FATA were trained by US and Pakistan forces to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Now, once again, the tables have turned. Since 9/11, no less than five other military operations have occurred in this area to combat militancy. Additionally, the US has continually attacked North Waziristan with drones.

Much of this is a legacy of colonialism, which forms the flesh and bone of the postcolonial state. Pakistan continues to demonize FATA and refuse the residents of FATA full citizenship. And, like the colonizers before us, we continue to think in terms of binaries: Either you are for the operation, or you are Taliban apologist. Little attention is paid to those who live in Waziristan. To be able to label the loss of life as “collateral damage” is a statement of unquestioned privilege.

Manufacturing consent

The mainstream media has worked hard to manufacture consent in much the same way that the public intellectual Noam Chomsky so richly detailed in a different context. Dawn, one of the country’s most reputable papers, wrote in its editorial on Thursday Jun 19th that, “Operation Zarb-e-Azb has wider strategic aims and seeks to restore the state’s writ by wiping out the militants’ hub in North Waziristan.”

Consider the language of this one sentence alone: “restoring the state’s writ” is code for state-sanctioned terror; “militants’ hub in North Waziristan” assumes that militants are restricted to a particular geographical space.  Dawn’s main concern is not the loss of life but the unity of the (rest of) the nation in support of the military assault.

Some newspapers have expressed concerns about the internally displaced people or refugees running from their homes in North Waziristan, but the media tends to portray the issue as a crisis in the making rather than an inevitable—and foreseeable—outcome of the operation.  For instance, in its June 21st editorial The Express Tribune, observes that “Operation Zarb-e-Azb is having an impact not only on the extremists who are its primary military target, but on the civilian population as well. There is a massive flow of internally displaced persons (IDPs).” What the newspaper does not say is that this was totally predictable since it is no surprise that a “civilian population” exists alongside “primary military targets”. In its patronizing tone, the editorial notes that part of the “complexity” is the “IDPs themselves” in that they are occupying government schools and other buildings rather than the camps set out for them—an interesting gloss on the problem that constructs the IDPs as the problem rather than, say, the lack of planning by the civilian government or the operation itself by the Pakistani army.

The News, too, has called the operation “all but inevitable”, but it does highlight the exclusion of the refugees from the national imaginary. In its recent editorial, the editors write that by “trying to wish the problem away by refusing entry to the IDPs reveals only a parochial mindset that reduces Pakistani citizens to an outsider status.”

Furthermore, as shown by the data collected by Tanqeed, the voices of residents from FATA stand at a dismal 10 percent as of this writing, with state-security and state-civilian voices taking up the bulk of the room. It is the voices of the ruling elite that get reproduced in the media, and as Herman and Chomsky state in their 1988 classic Manufacturing Consent, these elites fix frames that “exclude inconvenient facts from public inspection” (xiv) and gear public opinion in a direction that complies with their interests.

A closer examination of tweets trending under #ZarbeAzb shows how the social media mimics ideas generated in the mainstream English press, picking up similar words and trends including a focus on the unity of the nation and the construction of North Waziristan as the militant hub. Supporters of the army assault equate support for the operation with standing in solidarity with the armed forces; they dismiss anyone who opposes the military attack as a Taliban apologist. Consider these tweets by people well-known in the Pakistani Twitter sphere from a self-described ”mom, wife, publisher and foodie” to to a broadcast journalist (who strangely enough cites the revolutionary Antonio Gramsci in his bio).

The same is true of bloggers. One blogger at the Express Tribune gives an account of the protest he organized against terrorism, following the attack on Karachi Airport. Though the endeavor ought to be appreciated, the author ends his blog on the following note:

“Enough is enough! It is time to take back what is drenched in the blood of our ancestors!

It is time to support our brave men and women in uniform!

It is time to take back our country!

Pakistan Zindabad!

Pak Fauj Zindabad!

Zarb-e-Azb Zindabad!”

Another blog published on ARY news’ website claims that the “…announcement of operation Zarb-e-Azb has come as a sigh of relief for every Pakistani.”

Together, these examples show that there is high tolerance for state violence without giving much thought to the death and destruction it causes. Furthermore, the unity of all “worried” and “patriotic” Pakistanis who have had “enough” presents a deeply classist analysis. The military assault is justified as a backlash to the suffering of people in the urban centers, whereas the trauma of the people from the Tribal Areas is silenced.

There are alternative voices in the media that do not fall into the trap of seeing things black and white. One blogger admits that the operation will bring some positive changes, in terms of disbanding the TTP for a few months and halting terror attacks, yet he finds it “unrealistic to hope for sustainable peace from an operation like this. Peace needs a lot more than just a military fight.” The third comment on this blog accuses the blogger of having “a soft corner for the Taliban” and asks the writer for other solutions to the problem of terrorism.

No quick solutions

There aren’t any quick solutions. We must begin by looking at structural issues that have led to the creation and fostering of terrorism in the country. There are several questions, we must first answer: How does the state work with these terror organizations? How are they being funded? And, why is the state so selective in combatting an enemy that has taken the whole country by storm?

When people are ravaged by war and violence, there is a need to question and demand greater change rather than blindly accepting band-aid solutions. These, as history tells us, have failed to rid us off the state’s self-created problems.

Zehra Husain is studying Political Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London.


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22 Responses to Media Watch | Jingoism in the Media

  1. Waqar Ali Roghani on Jan 2015 at 2:03 PM

    It is interesting to note that Geo News, part of Jang Group, reporting the operation quite differently as The News did according to your research.

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