Major Akshat Upadhyay
Asuccessful democracy is an interconnected system of rule of law, accountability, equal political rights and civil liberties. Those systems where these regimes do not function properly are classified as defective democracies. One of the major reasons for this is the existence of a powerful institution (the Pakistan army, in the case of Pakistan) that has a disproportionate influence on decision-making in certain issues, curbing the legitimacy of the democratically elected authorities.
The Pakistani army has mastered a number of ways by which influence of the army and the deep state has been internalised. It does this through efficient media manipulation. The most effective instrument used by the army in this regard has been its Directorate General of Inter-Services Public Relations (DG-ISPR), which seeks to influence the behaviour of the general population through manipulation of television, print and social media.
The ISPR has evolved into a huge media arm of the Pakistan armed forces with a large bureaucracy over the 70 years of its existence. The roles of the ISPR and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) overlap in some cases, especially when it comes to subjugating voices critical of the army. For example, in January 2017, five bloggers writing on the persecution of minorities and human rights disappeared in the span of one week. Before their disappearance, a robust campaign was launched on television and social media, portraying them as anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam, especially by channels close to the army.
The ISPR was used by Lt Gen Asim Bajwa to idolise Gen Raheel Sharif’s role in eradicating militancy through Operation Zarb-e-Azb, so that in January 2016 posters appeared in Karachi and Islamabad, suggesting extension of the Army chief’s tenure. When Gen Qamar Bajwa became the chief, he reverted to the practice of a Major General heading the ISPR. Under Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, the ISPR, through Twitter, has increased its coverage of the COAS and pushed themes related to the army’s revisionist stance on Kashmir and Afghanistan and its primacy over Pakistan’s elected government. The SPR has tweeted on many foreign policy issues, such as enhancing connectivity projects in Balochistan under the garb of ‘Khushhal Balochistan’, reiterating the COAS’s aim to protect the integrity of Saudi Arabia, officially endorsing violence in Jammu and Kashmir by promoting songs such as ‘Sangbaaz’ (stone-pelter) and pre-empting the civilian government from intervening in the CPEC negotiations by tweeting about the COAS’s resolve to push through the completion of the CPEC at any cost. These subject matters form an exclusive purview of the elected government and hardly come into the ambit of the armed forces.
In the annual 202nd Corps Commanders' Conference (CCC), the COAS and his corps commanders reviewed the Panama Papers case, a massive leak of around 11.5 million documents which also mentioned the name of the then Pakistan PM, Nawaz Sharif, for money-laundering and having unaccounted monies abroad. In a tweet, the ISPR mentioned that the COAS had deputed members of the military to sit on the Joint Investigation Team, again a systemic anomaly wherein a sitting PM was investigated by members of the military intelligence.
However, the ISPR’s tweet on the Dawn Leaks case can be considered as the most audacious, wherein The Dawn, a reputed Pakistani newspaper, published a report titled ‘Exclusive: Act against militants or face international isolation, civilians tell military’ on October 6, 2016. In this, minutes of a meeting between the then DG-ISI, Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar, PM Nawaz Sharif, the PM’s brother and Chief Minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, and the national security advisor, Naseer Janjua, were leaked. These minutes referred to two controversial decisions taken by the PM. The first one was that military-led intelligence agencies would not interfere if law-enforcement agencies acted against banned militant groups, and second, to conclude the Pathankot investigations and restart the stalled Mumbai attacks trials. The then COAS, Gen Raheel Sharif, visited the PM on October 10, 2016, while terming the leak a ‘national security issue’. On November 7, 2016, the government constituted a commission for an investigation into the controversial report. However, the report’s contents were leaked and aired on various news channels. The government published an official notification dated April 29, 2017 in which it recommended that the role of the daily Dawn and Cyril Almeida be referred to the All-Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) for necessary disciplinary action. The DG-ISPR’s response was very brief. It rejected the government notification in a single and terse tweet. This tweet is significant because just after this the Pakistani government had to issue a clarification that no formal notification had yet been issued in the Dawn Leaks case.
During the Islamabad sit-in of November, 2017, the ISPR in a tweet on November 25, 2017, declared that the COAS had ‘advised’ the PM to ‘handle the Islamabad dharna peacefully’. The government requested the army for help after it found that the situation was getting out of control of the local law-enforcement agencies. The army put forth a series of requests that had to be fulfilled before it could be deployed. The government ultimately caved in to the demands of the protestors and their leader thanked the army chief for his ‘special efforts’.
The Pakistani army, through the DG-ISPR’s official and fake Twitter accounts, completely dominates the Pakistani media. Its Twitter expositions have a two-fold effect. On the one hand, it ensures zero criticism of the army, and on the other, by showcasing its activities in the domestic and foreign policy domain, it maintains the predominance of the army or the deep state. The ISPR tweets spin the narrative of an omnipotent army, which habitually disobeys, disregards and dictates policies to the civil government. By showing the politicians in a negative light, it helps perpetuate the myth of the supremacy of the armed forces and strengthens their hold in the imagination of the public.
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