Where the public forms its free opinion

December 8, 2019

The real debate on the extension saga unfolded on social media

The apex court of the country unexpectedly halting a long-announced extension in the job of the army chief is as big as news can get in Pakistan, short of a prime minister being removed from office or one being hanged or executed – all have, sadly, happened.

And yet, when two weeks ago a bolt from the blue arrived in the shape of Chief Justice Asif Khosa staying the extension in the job of the Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Bajwa, the otherwise cacophonous conventional media (television news channels and newspapers) were conspicuous by a lack of bite in their treatment of the mega news event.

Sure enough, there was wall-to-wall coverage on two dozen news channels over the issue, but the soundbite was not as shrill as, say, the equally stunning development of a jailed former prime minister, sentenced to many years in prison, flying away despite his name being on the notorious Exit Control List.

For three long days, while the issue was in court of the chief justice, an army of commentators analysed away the high drama in the Supreme Court. But the general tone of analysis was subdued – a reflection of the draconian rise in self-censorship that now mainly characterises Pakistani media, cowed down as it is under aggressive state-induced censorship ever since the erstwhile media darling Imran Khan ascended the power corridors.

Despite the unusually sharp-tongued proceedings of the Supreme Court, including the breathtakingly inept government defence of the decision to extend Bajwa’s job by three years, most of the discussions that took place on TV news channels revolved around technical angles of the proceedings as opposed to the otherwise generally emotional and often hysterical tone of the coverage of political scandals.

Unlike most TV news channels and newspapers, which exercised undue caution, the social media was where a pluralism of both news and opinions offered a more in-depth analysis of the issue

Generally, the discussions never coalesced into round responses to the unasked question of whether the army chief should be given an extended job run. Instead, it revealed a wanton bias in favour of criticising the Imran Khan government for bungling the multiple texts of the extension in service – as if prime ministers not completing their tenures is standard and army chiefs carrying on despite retirement age is normative.

Since there needs to be a villain in a conflict and the media needs to hit out at someone in a juicy news scandal, the media simply seemed to have decided the fault lay in the government’s mishandling of the process of extension rather than the extension itself. It was this line of thinking that extended the criticism of the affair to also include the chief justice as a target of opprobrium undertaken by a few TV channels.

A controversial current affairs presenter on one such channel actually used a socially derogative term for the chief justice that rhymed with the top judge’s surname. It was clearly wanton and no apology was offered. Some of the top trends on Twitter seemed to brand the chief justice not just a traitor but also an Indian agent – something the top judge angrily referenced to on the last day of the legal drama before a short order was announced. He explicitly complained about being a victim of the so-called ‘fifth generation warfare’ – the use of social media for disinformation and propaganda.

The real debate on the whole explosive affair – which has ended spiking what would otherwise have been a smooth matter of the army chief sleepwalking into a second consecutive term on the strength of an almost casual announcement by the prime minister a full three months before – was on social media.

Here the extension became a ridicule, and the government’s embarrassing inability to get the text of the extension in service right (necessitating at one point the direct involvement of the army chief in editing the text on the second night of the affair) became an indictment of ineptitude as well as thinly disguised references to selectors and their poor selections.

That unlike most TV news channels and newspapers, which exercised undue caution, the social media was where a pluralism of both news and opinions offered a more in-depth analysis of the issue, is a reflection of a larger trend. And this is that censorship which is so pervasive that reporters and analysts, who are forced into self-censorship by their employers, now offer better – and free! – news and opinions in their personal capacity online, especially on social media. In the process, they also garner a large following.

And since news and opinions tend to linger and stay stuck online, compared to TV and print, and are accessible to virtually everyone looking for them, the fact of the matter is that for the first time in 20 years an army chief who didn’t decline an extension in service has become not just the biggest news of the year but probably of the decade. This development remains unsullied by whatever public relations retaliation the powers-that-be can muster in aiming to prevent the public seeing through its propaganda.

The military’s mighty public relations machine has been forced into overtime to try and blunt the impact of this tectonic shift in social media establishment’s own parallel power of making and unmaking images and perceptions. Even censoring a former army chief (Aslam Baig) by the powers-that-be from criticising the issue of extension in service has proven futile, and actually compounded the challenge.

The bottom line is that censorship and self-censorship in conventional media worked again. But Pakistani citizens already knew this and found other means of forming their own free opinions about the biggest hit to the self-image of the powers-that-be in Pakistan.

The author is a political analyst and media development specialist. He can be reached at adrehmat@gmail.com

Army chief's extension and media: Where the public forms its free opinion