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The PTI – ISPR Bond: Pakistan’s Failed Hybrid Regime

Why did the PTI government have to put an Ex-ISPR personnel to control their Information?

With the scare of this global pandemic lurking over our heads and the fear of overall size of the world economy shrinking, leaders all over the world are busy strategizing a better plan to decide how they will save their sinking economies. How much they are willing to spend on real security of citizens in the form of health and personal development versus traditional military security. But how Pakistan calibrates these priorities is astonishing.  Despite the need to focus a lot of its defence budget to get redirected in the post-Covid-19 era, this government is instead busy making constitutional amendments that stand in the way of the military getting more resources. In a time when the entire world is going through a recession due to the pandemic and countries are reducing their unproductive expenditures such as military and defense budgets, the establishment in Pakistan is doing the opposite. A recent move that everyone is watching in Pakistan is the appointment of a former ISPR official to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s media management team.

In a surprising move, former Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) chief Lt Gen Asim Saleem Bajwa (Retd) was appointed as the new Special Assistant to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on the information. Bajwa will replace Firdous Ashiq Awan, who was serving as the information advisor to Khan. Awan was also sacked as the Federal Information Minister and will be replaced by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leader Shibli Faraz.

According to the latest sources from the government, Firdous Ashiq Awan had serious clashes with Imran Khan who was waiting for the move and chance to remove her. Imran Khan was upset with Awan, who was indulging in “self-promotion”, and therefore brought in the sudden changes. Some speculations are also rife that Firdous Ashiq Awan was involved in corruption charges of taking 10 percent for government advertisements from the newspapers and news channels. While the real reason for this sudden reshuffle cannot be clearly known, one thing is certain, that these changes are being welcomed by one and all in Pakistan.

However, sources in the Indian establishment said contrary to the official line, the Pakistan Army’s hand is visible clearly in these changes.

Ex-army spokesman to control all Information and media

ISPR is a tri-service organization, which serves as the propaganda department of the Pakistani Army, and is the key department responsible for information warfare. The appointment of a former DG, who has worked closely with ISPR, as SAPM for Information and Broadcasting to the Prime Minister is sending a clear message that the military establishment is not ready to accept the failures of the hybrid regime it set up, which is not only destroying the economy but also weakening democracy and political discourse. That Pakistan Army is working hand in glove with the government to project a narrative that Pakistan Army wants to show, which is surely a façade built to cover up the reality.

In the modern world, both democratic and authoritative regimes need propagandists not only to divert the attention of the masses toward non-issues but also to keep them hostage to the designated paradigm of what they should see, what they should hear, and whom they should vote for. This is the reason information ministries are given a key position, as they put a spin on events and proceedings according to the will of the government, whether visible or invisible.

The appointment of Gen Bajwa, the former ISPR chief who also served as the chairman of the important China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Authority (CPECA), shows the Pakistan Army’s focus on information projection. Bajwa, enjoys a good reputation within the military establishment, as during his stint as Director-General of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), he successfully promoted the image of the then Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Raheel Sharif, and managed the media as the establishment expected. So gradually the invisible government of the establishment is becoming visible, as the bad governance of the Khan-led PTI government and its inability to bring the opposition parties to the table for a cohesive national action plan for fighting the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on country’s economy has left the establishment with virtually no option but to come to center stage and govern from the front.

Not surprisingly, the former DG ISPR has been brought back to play a more central role in media management for Imran Khan. But the retired general is certainly not being brought in to explain why there is a shortage of ventilators or masks in different parts of the country, or that the lockdown has been rendered ineffective by the mullahs and the masjids. It is clear the General’s role will be to manage opinion while the constitutional amendments are being made. Asim Bajwa will probably pull out all the tricks he used as the army’s media Tsar – from soft to direct coercion, stopping newspapers from printing certain news and even columns from dissenting voices or those that don’t fit the bill, creating and managing a team of social media warriors, bribing media people and much more.

Repression of free voice

In a country where suppression of meaningful journalism is not a new concept and media has been gagged since ages, the screws on media in Pakistan are being tightened through various means of censorship, including murders, threats, and harassment, resulting in increasing silence and resulting in erosion of public-interest journalism. At least 91 cases, including seven murders of journalists and a blogger, attacks and other violations, against media and its practitioners have been documented in Pakistan over the course of one year – between May 2019 and April 2020 –  signifying a worryingly escalating climate of intimidation and harassment that is adversely affecting the freedom of expression and access to information environment in the country.

And now, as if all that wasn’t enough, the appointment of Retd Gen Bajwa definitely shows the involvement of the State and its authorities and functionaries (Pak Military) in the attacks and their urge to control media as per their own requirements. In fact, Asim Bajwa’s appointment is a message to the political players and dissident journalists that now the invisible forces will defend their puppet government and that they are not going to abandon this failed project any time soon.

Viewpoint

Over the years, the relationship between the officer cadre and national security has become extremely transactional. To motivate for better performance or to keep national secrets requires a hefty resource package. Moreover, good media management will be required as the military battles other financial needs of the state. The Army GHQ understands that its personal needs are well taken care of. The new media team is likely to ensure that things are calm at the political and societal front. This will probably be termed as fighting a hybrid-war, a concept increasingly popular in the army. Any opinion in favor of the provincial autonomy will be presented as propaganda war against the state, something that the former DG ISPR is adept in.

The opposition parties are already weak to the extent that no voice was raised about Asim Bajwa’s appointment who also holds the charge as the head of the CPEC Authority with a hefty pay. The silence from both the main opposition parties indicates what lies in the future – more silence as a strategic change is brought about. Asim Bajwa not only brought to control the media, which was already so suppressed, but now he will control PM Imran Khan as well. The incompetence of the PTI government is going to the account of those who brought them. However, the question remains: Will they be able to keep this rigged political discourse intact and save the artificial democratic face of the PTI government to continue ruling the country through hybrid martial law?

02 May 20/Saturday                                                                                       Written By: Saima Ibrahim

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