On a tangent | Talat Hussain

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ISPR. in the recent past these four letters have dominated the national scene like no other. From national politics to counterterrorism, from foreign relations to defence matters, from chalking political strategies to building ambition and dreams about coming to power – rightly or wrongly – politicians, businessmen, journalists, entertainment industry gurus, bright lights of infotainment, diplomats and members of the forces have all had to keep one eye permanently fixed on these letters.

They had to because the ‘I’ was the first person singular representing the media-loving General Asim Bajwa; the P stood for the person whose initials were R and S viz Raheel Sharif. And that summed up ISPR. A content analysis of the Twitter account of the former DG shows remarkable patterns that correspond to the above illustration: two persons were what the abbreviation of Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) actually came to represent.

(This content analysis will be presented in another article; its abridged version was part of an earlier presentation made at the National Defence University, where other points were also made. This is for the consumption of those who have raised questions about the timing of some of my earlier articles. I have consistently argued along these lines for a very long time – when no one was talking – and it is part of the written record)

Now that a whole lot of things are being revisited, it is only logical to take a look at the role and direction of this critical institution whose functioning is not just significant for the forces’ media representation, but is vital for those in the information business – ie journalists. The key question is how to harness ISPR’s formidable resources and reset its priorities in areas where such resetting is required.

From a journalist’s point of view, there are a few areas where the institution can become an incredible resource of data, information and knowledge. The first is the defence sector itself. For a country that has been defined as a security state and which of late has been in the throes of costly violence perpetrated by vile terrorists and their scheming backers, there is an incredible dearth of basic understanding of how the defence sector works. We have trained reporters in the fields of politics, parliamentary institutions, the judiciary, health, education, crime and police but when it comes to defence matters, most news and media houses are groping in the dark for in-house expertise. From terminologies to understanding weapons, from hierarchies and roles of different command structures, and from soldiers’ welfare to recruitment procedures there is no trained pool of journalists that can report without fear of error, contradiction and with total authority.

As a result, sometimes you see fakeness parade around as war correspondents; and it is not pleasing to the eye. Affected accents and wearing a helmet or a bullet-proof jacket become a sign of professional competence. Rudimentary knowledge, augmented by Wikipedia searches, furnishes the basis of the pretention that there are people out there who can fully grasp the dynamics of this vital sector and of the core institutions associated with it. Many of these characters have been launched on a personal whim and they work more like extensions of ISPR’s PR persons than real journalists.

The majority of hardworking journalists whose assigned beat this sector is never get the opportunity to enhance their understanding of the subject through constant training and learning. Therefore, they remain more or less cut off from the bigger debate that rages about, say, issues on the Line of Control, India’s defence preparedness, the spy war in Balochistan, new weapons systems and a whole host of other allied issues.

ISPR can be the platform to organise training courses for journalists working in this field. It can do so with the help of press clubs and media representative bodies. It can use the formidable expertise at its disposal in a more structured way to add to the knowledge base of defence correspondents. It can throw the net of this cooperation wide and bring in local journalists in key locations for this training. Of course, the need and parameter for such training (which should also be conducted by other institutions in other fields/beats like law and administration, police and business, IT and the development sector) will have to be worked out with media organisations. But once done, it can become a formidable mutually beneficial arrangement leading to better coverage and a more balanced view of how the defence forces work.

Another area ISPR can focus on and where absence of information is sorely felt by most journalists and writers interested in commenting on the sector is policy areas where the forces are constitutionally entitled to express and articulate their point of view and where there is no harm in sharing the latest trends in debates about defence matters. For instance, doctrines that have been operationalised and strategies that get talked about everyday on talks shows in generic terms without any depth need fleshing out. It would help if documents and research papers could be accessed through ISPR.

Much work is being done in different research institutions, and universities are producing good scholarship on defence, but all that is either restricted to a niche group or simply sits on shelves (or computer hard drives) and never becomes part of the general discussion. This material can be made available for general consumption. And archives, video, audio and text must also be made more accessible so that those working on related topics can produce better quality work.

But, most importantly, this institution has to become more representative of all three services and not just act as a media outlet of the office of the chief of army staff. The title of the organisation makes it very clear that it embodies the information needs of all three services, not just one. Restoring ISPR’s original focus and aim ought to make it more information-worthy and give the navy and the air force more space in national debate on defence matters. At present, the other two forces get minimal air and talk time and as a result there is an unfortunate lopsidedness in the nation’s understanding of what the defence of the country means and what its air and water requirements are in the coming years.

These initial steps can make the institution more relevant to this modern age and bring a more positive focus on its activities. From the media’s point of view, an information-active ISPR that gives it a 3D view of defence matters and is a partner in enhancing its professional capacity and understanding of complex defence issues will be a welcome revision of roles. It will also bring more realism back to the institution’s functioning and move it away from the exaggerated role of a policy articulation and power politics tool.

That phase looked good while it lasted to those who benefited from it and pushed their own personal agendas through it. It did not do any good to the reputation of the services it represented nor performed its core functions with any measure of efficiency. It became synonymous with intense battles with civilian counterparts, battles that did not remain confined to the information-sphere but went much beyond that.

The new ISPR chief can reflect on the gains and losses of the past many years and draw conclusions about the future course. What is certain is that he has inherited an ISPR that has gone off on a tangent.

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.

Email: syedtalathussain@gmail.com