The battle for hearts and minds is not restricted to the war on terror. It extends, of course, to any political sphere – from the Conservatives battling Labour for fiscal appeal to both markets and public to the batter for hearts and minds of the Pakistani people. Like the rumours of air-brushed Cameron campaign posters, rumours of opinion management, spin and deception emerged recently again in Pakistan.
In 2009 a shocking video showing Taliban brutally flogging a girl gripped the nation and gained international attention. Its important because it was the moment that Pakistani public opinion began to support the campaign to root out the Taliban.
Last month an article in the English language The News reported that a Swati resident claims he was commissioned to make the video for an Islamabad-based NGO for which he received Rs0.5 million (just over $5,000). According to the (unnamed) source, the purpose was to of Islamabad-based NGO which provided him Rs0.5 million to ‘defame the country’s integrity and respect’. The rumours flew. Was the international community behind a conspiracy to fool the Pakistani public? Was the military behind efforts to mobilise public support for military action?
The Islamabad NGO is an organisation run by a woman called Samar Minallah, who wrote a response to the article. In it, mounts a robust defence of the piece – noting that no-one made money from the video, and that there were names sources who backed up the original story.
But many, both outside but especially in, will be wondering what the truth is. For Pakistan is a country, more than any other country I have had the privelege to spend time in, where rumour is so rife.
In Pakistan the media already struggle to maintain neutrality and credibility in the face of oppression by the State, where English and vernacular language press are so different, where the secret service effectively have their own TV station and where covering military activities was until only recently prohibited.
Last year, the military mounted one of their most impressive efforts to mould public opinion. It centred around what conditions, if any, the giant American aid package mandated by the Kerry-Luger Bill would be accepted. The military were concerned about control over the money, and US influence over Pakistan’s domestic policy proces. They organised press conferences and mobilised a media campaign so effective that there was the sense of a real possibility the already unpopular government would be forced to re-negotiate terms with the US. It was only after US General McChrystal and Senator John Kerry reassured the military leadership that the campaign stopped and the issue of the Kerry-Lugar Bill disappeared.
This manipulation of public opinion, and the ease with which it was done, are one of the greatest barriers to a strng democracy, as opposed to a strong military, in Pakistan. The world over is struggling with the journalism crisis. In Pakistan this crisis only strengthens the power of the military and weakens the voice of the people.
Whats needed is increased protection of journalists, proper journalism schools, reform of the Pakistani Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, and a stronger commitment from the international community to stand up for media rights.