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The slap heard round the country

The slap heard round the country

By: M.A. Niazi

The slapping of a lady reporter representing a TV channel, by an FC constable posted at a NADRA office in Karachi, has sent shock waves throughout the social media, but in the midst of the debate about whether the reporter deserved to be slapped or not, what seems to have been lost sight of is the motivations of the slapper.

What seems to be emerging is that the reporter was doing her job.
Whether she was doing it discreetly or not is debatable, whether she could have done it better or not can also be discussed.
Some have taken the view that the slap was inevitable; some that it was even overdue.
That seems to ignore the fact that it was illegal, or at least of dubious legality.
However, it seems that two institutions are clashing, and not because they are deliberately doing so, but because there is a universal culture of backing colleagues, right or wrong.

The FC constable doing the slapping was on guard duty at the NADRA office, there because his unit had been sent ‘in aid of the civil power’.
The FC is, like the Rangers, a Civil Armed Force under the Interior Ministry, but provided officers by the Army.
Other personnel are recruited separately, for a career in that force.
While officers joined the Pakistan Army, and must seek in the FC to fulfill the goals and ambitions that led them to obtain a commission, those who join FC other ranks must seek out their goals there.

However, one goal is that of seeking the armed forces, or rather the Army, to provide the source of group solidarity that will enable them to negotiate their way through life.
The military lays great emphasis on that group solidarity, and at least partly because of repeated bouts of military rule, there are a number of military institutions which imitate civilian institutions.
Being in the armed forces allows one to enjoy that group solidarity, knowing that this means that one will be saved in any clash with another institution.
This might well come after the desires to be fed, clothed and housed, and to be paid, but it does play an important role.
It flows from one of the basic military targets, which is the recovery of bodies of those who die in combat.
As other occupations do not entail anticipating death, they do not entail any commitment to doing anything about bodies.
Even now, death in battle is not only violent, but may involve mutilation or defacing of the corpses.

Military behavior includes unquestioning obedience.
As the military oath puts it, ‘unto the peril of death’.
In Pakistan, as in many other countries, this has led to coups, and a belief in the venality of civilian masters.
The press is not supposed to be a fatal occupation, though journalists have died in the performance of their duties.
However, it also has to deal with those civilian master, revealing their actions, as well as exposing their misdeeds.
They cannot take over, but if someone else (in short, the military) does, they are needed to extol it.

The power of the press in a free society was seen during the Vietnam War, when its coverage led to revulsion against it, and to the ‘embedment’ of journalists during the Iraq War.
The military has not been labelled a separate Estate, but is part of the Executive.
The press is called the Fourth Estate, thus making it a constituent of state power.
Another example, more recent and immediate, of the role of the press in conflicts, is that of the Indian media, which has done much to pump war hysteria and to perpetuate BJP lies about ‘surgical strikes’ by the Indian military.

Professional solidarity has been interpreted by individuals in almost all professions, not just the military or the media, to mean offering and expecting blind support.
This leads to the clash of institutions.
Wherever seniors try to patch things up, they only bring politeness, not an easing of positions.
The clash is then between two seniors, who might feel the need to appeal upwards.
Indeed, when the heads of the institutions are involved, there is ultimately a point where there is no appeal.
It might lead to the refusal of the military to acknowledge the primacy of the civilian institution.
If the matter comes to the level of the Prime Minister, as head of the Executive, and the COAS, as the head of the military, there is an implicit assumption by the COAS that the Prime Minister is not his boss, that the military is not a branch of the Executive.

However, the military seems most vulnerable to clashes, for not only has there been the NADRA office incident, but also the placing of a reporter on the Exit Control List because of a report of his.
It is an open secret that, though the report also involved civilians, the institution most offended by the report was the military.
That report was potentially embarrassing to the military officers involved, and it should be noted that the reporter’s name was removed from the ECL only when the seniors of the profession, in the shape of a press delegation, met a representative of the Executive, in the shape of the Information Minister.

However, before one sees a pattern of deteriorating military-press relations, it is worth remembering the clash between two SSG officers and a Highway Police inspector.
That was a particularly unfortunate incident, because it involved conflict between the two arms of the Executive through which it exercises force.
Among other things, it was illustrative of one reason for unease among members of the military: the absence of impunity.
If anyone, without exception, would be penalized for breaking the law, military officers would have no objection.
However, if anyone is exempt because he belongs to the elite, and military men are not, that means they are not part of the elite.
Even if being part of the elite was not a goal at the time of joining up, institutional acculturation makes it one.
Those who enjoy that status, the politicians, thus become a target.

It is perhaps unfortunate that the one institution that is dedicated to exposing these evils, the media, itself contains corruptible individuals.
However, they do not obtain elite status by force, but by saving certain individuals from embarrassment.
These individuals are already part of the elite, but one of the privileges of their position is respect.
If they are seen generally as contemptible, their elite status has little or no meaning.
Thus all means of information must be controlled, including the press.
The military has a particular image, including the carefully cultivated one of the ultimate saviours of the country.
This means that this image needs to be maintained by press support.

The latest incident shows that the other ranks of what are technically civil armed forces are also adopting the feeling of entitlement that leads to clashes.
Another factor is the long involvement in Karachi, where the regular police apparently cannot be trusted with guard duties.
That the incident occurred in Karachi is no coincidence, and the sensitive nature of the city must be kept in mind.

It is perhaps time for the heads of all institutions to ensure not just that they are on the same page as those of other institutions, or with their juniors; but that their juniors are on the same page as their counterparts in other institutions.
The problem is that life goes on after such incidents; unfortunately, one day, a single incident might change everything.
And seniors might not like that.


The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.

Some have taken the view that the slap was inevitable; some that it was even overdue.
That seems to ignore the fact that it was illegal, or at least of dubious legality.

The Nation

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