April issue 2010

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 14 years ago

The Pak Institute for Peace Studies’ (PIPS)Understanding the Militants’ Media in Pakistan: Outreach and Impact is quite a thorough read. The group is an independent think tank that seeks to provide an understanding of regional and strategic issues — providing international strategic thinkers a perspective on how perceived threats ought to be handled so that peace is achieved and democracy spread. Looking at the important issue of the history, content, and style of militant and pro-militant media publications — which include newspapers, magazines, CDs and DVDs, leaflets, letters and poetry — it seeks to trace its overall impact on audiences worldwide. Moreover, it wishes to understand how important such publications are in the spread of religiously motivated militant activities and anti-western — most notably, anti-US — campaigns.

The study begins with a general survey of the history of militant and pro-militant publications. The spread of such publications, it points out, flourished during the 1970s with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. During this period, fighters — ‘militants’ — were urged by their supporters to wage jihad in the land so as to repel the Soviet invasion. Since much of the main-stream media did not give adequate coverage to the Afghani plight and efforts, militant publications made it their goal to give the efforts of the Afghani fighters their due.

But rather than merely repeating the happenings in the regions as the main-stream media tends to do, such groups, the study tells us, ‘spun’ issues so that religious themes would play a central role. Hence, a retelling of past Islamic glories and the importance and rewards for waging physical jihad commonly appeared in such publications. Interviews with commanders of the Afghan jihad and Islamic scholars on the religious validity of the war, and an overall plea to Islamic movements throughout the world to wage a global jihad were also common. The publications also featured regular sections on the various war fronts of the Muslim-majority countries, issues related to criticism of the politics and economic decisions of the Pakistan government and those opposing jihad efforts, as well as poetry and letters galvanising the mujahids, but all, again, to bring about jihad-related activities.

After the events of 9/11, a marked shift can be noticed. Whereas before, militant and pro-militant publications played an important role to provide alternate media reporting, after the events, with Musharraf’s support of the US-led ‘war on terror,’ most of these publications were either forced underground or banned altogether. Many of the chief editors were either imprisoned or fired from their posts. Hence, while the content remained pretty much the same, the number of publications produced by militant and pro-militant groups greatly diminished.

The second part of the study looks at the categories that may be used to classify and understand militant and pro-militant media. Chapter 2, the “Landscapes of the Militants’ Media in Pakistan,” begins by noting four general categories of militant media: publications by militant groups themselves; those by madrassa groups, supporters of militant efforts, nationalism and ‘Islamic’ nationalism — appearing often in vernacular languages — and publications by ‘sectarian’ groups. Each has its marked differences, the study tells us. For instance, madrassa and militant-based publications diverge in their treatment of sectarian issues — with the former madrassa groups ardently condemning ‘deviant’ sects such as the Ahmedis far more than the militants. Emphasis on nationalism is also a common feature of the vernacular groups. But these differences aside, almost all the publications share in their condemnation of the West, India and Israel, and their overall push for jihad — local and international.

Given that much of the content touched upon by the militant and pro-militant media also appears in mainstream media, one is tempted to wonder how accurate the reporting truly is. To this inquiry, the study ardently responds by holding that militant and pro-militant publications on the whole cannot be relied upon. Constantly using spin tactics, rhetoric, derogatory and sensationalised terms, such publications in tone, diction and style, resemble efforts to dispel propaganda rather than factual reporting. They are certainly not driven by the same unbiased, critical reporting ethics as mainstream journalism is.

Despite this, however, militant publications do attract a large number of readers from the various strata of local Pakistanis and foreign Muslims. Their readership is widespread in areas where low literacy levels exist, especially those regions dominated by Afghan Pashtuns. Women and children, too, are part of the publications’ target market. While many of the readers do confess to their preference for mainstream media, with an overall readership of two per cent of Pakistan’s population, these publications, the study points out, pose a very real threat to local and international peace efforts.

Making clear its overall negative impact on society, the study concludes by providing a list of recommendations to thwart militant and pro-militant publications. A multi-faceted approach, it asserts, is needed. For the Pakistani state, it urges that militant and pro-militant publications not be considered ‘true’ journalism, but rather propaganda. As such, they pose a real threat to international peace efforts. While the post 9/11 response of the Pakistan government was a step in the right direction, more needs to be done with this same goal in mind. While categories need to be formulated to distinguish true journalism from propaganda, enforcement officials should be trained to identify propaganda publications and effectively eliminate them without having to resort to combative tactics. But more important than this, all efforts need to be made in winning the hearts of the local population so as to undermine the message of the militant and pro-militant publications.

The study, as is evident, is not for the general reader. Its content, writing style, and use of select terminology requires one to be familiar with issues related to communications, media and political analysis and the political make-up of Pakistan. Further, the use of statistical analysis and methodological frameworks to classify and chart militant and pro-militant media has the potential of confusing the reader not acquainted with such a style of writing. Of course, PIPS makes clear that the study is not intended for all readers. Rather, it seeks to target “leading regional and international thinkers, academicians and media persons” working towards the promotion of peace and democracy, locally, nationally, and internationally.

While containing much useful empirical data, the study does have a number of problems. Generally, it glosses over terms that are very much in need of detailed definitions. First, although it seeks to bring about an overall understanding of militants’ publication, it never really explains what exactly it means by ‘militant’ and what makes the publications discussed distinctly ‘militant.’ Since ‘militant,’ ‘militancy’ and ‘Islamic militancy’ are transient terms that constantly change in meaning, a definition would have been positive to the study’s overall aim. A similar critique can be made for its treatment of terms such as ‘sectarian’ and ‘jihad,’ besides others.

One may also question the study’s categorisation of militant media as a tool of propaganda. For those familiar with theories of power relations, militant media may be viewed not so much as a propaganda tool existing in and of itself, but rather as a response, or challenge, to the dominant mainstream media. As such, it ‘checks’ the mainstream media, and provides an alternate account to its reporting — whose content, style and use of language, generally, does not change all too much. This, of course, is a matter of intellectual inquiry for those interested in relations of power.

And, to wrap up, while the study provides important descriptive information on militant publications, it never really attempts to understand why militant media operates in the manner it does. The study never really seeks to answer why militant media focuses on the themes it publishes, chooses to target a specific audience and uses the language in a specific manner — with all of the rhetoric, sensation, and emotion. By failing to provide an overall analysis of why militant media takes the shape it does, the study does not delve fully into the topic it seeks to address.

Understanding the Militants’ Media in Pakistan is a work which should be taken with, as the colloquial phrase goes, ‘a pinch of salt.’ Perhaps changing the title of the study from Understanding the Militants’ Media in Pakistan to An Overview of the Militants’ Media in Pakistan would be more telling of the work’s overall content.