Media Watch | Our Biased Opinions

August 14 — Between June 16, 2014 and August 13, 2014, three English language Pakistani newspapers – Dawn, Express Tribune and The News – published 129 editorial and opinion pieces, focusing on the military offensive in North Waziristan and its aftermath.

Only nine articles published in the English-language Pakistani newspapers criticized the decision to launch the operation. Three were published in Dawn  two written by Aasim Sajjad Akhtar and one by Umair Javed), six in The News (one written by Nadir Hassan and another five articles written by Ayaz Wazir), and none in The Express Tribune. The rest of the 129 articles, or 93 percent of all the opinion and editorial articles published on the issue, either came out in unequivocal support of the operation (at most calling for transparency and critical conversations) or failed to take a position. Two-thirds of the articles that did not state a position spoke of the refugee crisis as a logistical or practical challenges that constituted a “separate issue” unrelated to Operation Zarb-e-Azb.

Is Zarb-e-Azb an inevitable war for peace?

The overwhelming support for the operation is apparent in all three English-language newspapers. Though writers, like Mosharraf ZaidiSaroop Ijaz and Abbas Nasir, as well as a number of editorials in Dawn, call for transparent and critical conversation, they “reiterate why a military operation is so necessary”­ as a Dawn editorial states. That editorial also says that critique  “should not in any way diminish the importance of North Waziristan to militancy of every stripe.” Another opinion piece acknowledges the presence of militancy elsewhere, but argues that “ ‘not only Waziristan’ does not mean ‘not Waziristan’.” These and other pro-operation articles have claimed that the operation has started a“war for peace” that was “inevitable,” “vital,” “long in coming” and launched after an “inordinate delay”.

No editorials, and very few opinion articles, question the manner in which the decision to launch the operation was taken. Rather than asking why the armed forces, and not the country’s democratically elected prime minister, were the first to announce the launch of the operation, the articles call on the prime minister to “take center stage” in a decision that it is unclear whether he or his cabinet were even a part of making. “The country needs leadership, it deserves leadership – will the prime minister step up to provide it?” a Dawn editorial goes on to ask. The ruling party in north Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkwa province, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, has said that they were not informed of the operation, in response to criticisms launched against the provincial government regarding the dismal state of refugees.

Nadir Hassan questions the extent of the civilian government’s involvement. “Nawaz Sharif may have unequivocally supported a military offensive in his National Assembly appearance but can we be sure that our elected leader has not been pressurized into backing the preferred tactics of others?” Aasim Zafar Khan, who has come out in support of the operation, says “The PML-N government has not owned the operation by choice, but by the lack of it.” Hassan goes on to point out that war “should be a somber exercise undertaken humbly and with foreknowledge of the risks associated with it and the certainty of innocents dying. None of these conditions have been fulfilled with the operation in North Waziristan.”

The reason that such an assessment is well-nigh impossible, says Hassan, is because the public does not have access to the full picture: “What is being withheld from us is the crucial information of what makes this operation different to the many we have previously undertaken.”

What about the information gap?

An ongoing Media Watch project launched by Tanqeed in the wake of Operation Zarb-e-Azb demonstrates that “when stories have to do with the numbers of people killed or the ongoing action of the military assault, the articles are dominated by the ISPR and other military officials.” Journalists and residents from North Waziristan, as well as articles in Dawn and The News, have also pointed out that the Pakistani media fails to sufficiently question ISPR press releases. “[Both] the operation — and the reporting on it — come from the security establishment,” says an article in Dawn.

In the first of four editorials where The News questions the accuracy of information emerging from North Waziristan, published immediately after the operation was launched, the paper points out that the “only source of information on the ground will be the military. […] There is no way of confirming such reports and so we need to be able to distinguish propaganda from truth.” Another editorial admits that there “is of course a problem with being solely reliant on the ISPR as our only source of information on the war.” However, skepticism around the information emerging from North Waziristan does not push the vast majority of editorial or opinion writers to question the operation. The bulk of the opinion articles have spoken in favor of the operation, inadvertently basing their conversation on information that may be grossly unreliable.

Dawn questions the information emerging in only two of its editorials, both of which were published within four days of launching the operation (June 17 and June 19), and therefore almost a month ago. Though Dawn entertained Imran Khan’s idea of suspending operations “until all civilians have left the area,” and have called for a broader security policy rather than a military-centric approach to militancy,the bulk of their opinion articles and all of their editorials fail to question the accuracy of the information released and the decision to launch the operation in the first place. The only two writers who questioned the launch of the operation itself in Dawn are Aasim Sajjad Akhtar (in two articles) and Umair Javed.

Express Tribune’s opinion and editorial desk allowed one writer, Tariq Mahmud, to claim that “notwithstanding the great sufferings of the internally displaced persons (IDPs), there has been no reported loss of civilian life.” This is despite witness statements from refugees saying that people died escaping, and an AFP report re-published in Express Tribune one week prior to Mahmud’s article, saying that North Waziristan residents are claiming civilian deaths have occurred after the launch of the operation.

The only editorial in the Express Tribune that flags that there is “no way to corroborate […] [ISPR] figures” on loss of life, seemingly dismisses any critical questioning of the data (or other information) released by the security forces in the sentence that follows. “If we are to believe that not a single civilian casualty has taken place (which, let us admit, is highly doubtful),” says the editorial, “those are pretty good numbers from a war’s point of view.” The editorial goes on to urge the ISPR to “give us the actual figures and not unnecessarily paint a rosy picture that is difficult to believe,” but links such transparency to the “credibility of the operation.” Finally, the editorial proclaims that “war is hell and truth can be bitter,” but it does not entertain the possibility that a fully transparent picture of the operation could shift the initial decision to launch it in the first place. Instead, the editorial hints that militants could “attempt to use the remaining civilians as human shields” effectively removing any responsibility for civilian deaths off the shoulders of the Pakistan Army.

Are civilians to blame?

Articles on the operation tend to place the primary blame for the refugee crisis on the shoulders of the civilian government. Tanqeed’s Media Watch demonstrates that “articles detailing the plight of the IDPs cite greater instances of state-civilian sources,” indicating that it is the civilian governments, and not the Pakistan Army, that are held to account on the questions surrounding the refugee crisis.

One editorial in The News says that refugees have reported “being mistreated by police and administration officials” even though reports have emerged of soldiers being part of using a heavy hand–through, among other, aerial shots–with refugees protesting aid distribution in Bannu, where the bulk of them have arrived. In that same vein, none of the editorials and none of the opinion articles hold the Pakistan Army to account for the fact that they did not inform the civilian population prior to launching the operation. One writer in Dawn, Babbar Sattar, even shifts the primary blame onto the shoulders of the civilian government and questions whether civilians ought to be in charge. Sattar writes, “[How] do you make a case for civilian oversight over military matters when the civilians do absolutely nothing about governance (a mandatory requirement for building peace) that they are responsible for?”

This comes despite evidence that the Pakistan Army bears a major portion of the responsibility for leaving many stuck in North Waziristan. In a report for Al Jazeera, Tanqeed editor Asad Hashim quoted a military official on condition of anonymity and with knowledge of the operation. “[He] said that residents of North Waziristan had not been provided advanced warning before the military operation officially began on June 15, as air strikes has been occurring for several weeks beforehand.”

Is Pakistan united?

The claim that the nation stands “united” with an “overwhelmingly positive” response appears perpetually in the opinions and editorials along with a demand to readers that  it is necessary to remain united. One Dawn editorial, referring to political conflicts in the wake of Imran Khan and Tahir ul Qadri’s attacks on the sitting government, argues that it is “important that the unity now being demonstrated by the people is not allowed to erode because of short-sighted political goals or the temptation to upstage one political party or the other.”

Over 90 percent of all editorials and opinion writers fail to ask whether residents of North Waziristan were part of the “united” Pakistan or the “overwhelmingly positive” response. In The News, Ayaz Wazir, one of four writers who has come out with a scathing critique of the operation, points out that the “people of North Waziristan were neither consulted nor included in the negotiations” that preceded the operations. Yet, he says, it is the “the poor inhabitants of the area and not the negotiators or the administrators” who are left to bear the “brunt of the military action in the area.” Two days later, Aasim Sajjad Akhtar asked whether “anyone bothered to consult the people who live in the ‘terrorist haven’ being bombed” in one of his two articles for Dawn. One day after Akhtar, Umair Javed pointed out that:

The army has, historically, never taken on the burden of seeking out public opinion on military or administrative action in Pakistan’s border areas, least of all from the local populace. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the views of those most affected by the violence of the Taliban, and the retaliatory bombardment of the military, have been deemed largely irrelevant once again.

When articles have called for “Preserving Unity” or ensuring a “Unity of Effort,” they have focused on state-level actors – military, civilian governments, political parties –and ignored the people who are directly affected by the military assault.

While discussing unity, many articles, opinions and editorials have also claimed that the misery of the displaced is a “separate issue” from the military necessity of the operation. Sixty-four percent of the opinion articles and editorials that did not state a position on Zarb-e-Azb spoke of the “unending” “IDP conundrum.”

Yet, these articles de-link the refugee crisis from the decision to launch the operation by conceptualizing the miseries of half a million people as a “governance” challenge that is primarily caused by a civilian government dragging its feet. They think of the refugee crisis as a result of government mishandling rather than the operation that forced people to move in the first place. The reluctance to connect the military attack and the displacement demonstrates a specific pro-army narrative that is deeply embedded in these media publications.

Our appraisal

The editorial analysis indicates the presence of several inclinations. Firstly, there is a collective refusal to question the rationale of the military operation. The publications accept the decision to launch an assault on North Waziristan without skepticism and questioning. The majority of editorials chose to applaud the military and the government for finally reaching a seemingly joint decision between the government and armed forces to uproot perceived regional militancy.

This has also meant a large-scale de-politicization of the operation by opinion and editorial writers. The discourse is limited to a simple issue of mobility, logistics and administrative strategy as evident in retired lieutenant general Talat Masood’s op-ed for Express Tribune. “Once the people have been evacuated,” Masood claims, “then the ground operation would commence. All those who stay back will be considered hostile to the state and will be dealt with accordingly, unless they raise the white flag and surrender.”

The reality of the assault is glaringly absent from this line of thought, and consequently, opinions and editorials tend to discuss the refugees as an apolitical group of people–i.e. people without a history or a politics, and therefore without a voice. This trend eclipses the stark reality of the assault affecting their lives. Little has been said concerning the economic rehabilitation and social transition of the displaced people while there has been no durable analysis of the need for accountable governance structures for IDPs. The treatment of the IDPs as a nameless, faceless group forced to flee the safety and privacy of their homes under the dynamics of a modern surveillance state has been criticized in Tanqeed.

Unfortunately, the media obsession with iconic figures like Tahir ul Qadri and Imran Khan relegates the already stifled conversation of North Waziristan to the shadows.

Methodology

Tanqeed logged 129 articles that primarily dealt with Operation Zarb-e-Azb, and placed each article in one of three categories:

– Pro-war/Critical, in favor. Articles that explicitly state that it supports the operation, or that the operation was e.g. inevitable, long-in-coming, necessary, crucial, unfortunate but necessary, etc.
– Anti-war/War-critical. Articles that explicitly state that they oppose the operation, or that the operation was launched on a false, insufficient, inaccurate, etc. basis.
– Neutral or unclear. Articles that did not state an explicit position.

Articles shaded grey in the sheet below were counted on par with the rest of those that were included, but spent significant time on topics unrelated to Operation Zarb-e-Azb.

Our methodology is a work in progress, and we welcome any and all feedback on how we can do a better job! Please do not hesitate to give us your feedback in your comments below, or contact us on editors@tanqeed.org.

Datasheet

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64 Responses to Media Watch | Our Biased Opinions

  1. Zahra on Aug 2014 at 6:18 AM

    Great analysis!
    I wonder how the Urdu papers fare in comparison..

  2. TQ Chāt | # 16 | Tanqeed on Aug 2014 at 6:18 PM

    […] that bombs and bullets are extinguishing lives in Waziristan. Check out Tanqeed’s publications from the last week(ish) on […]

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