From Dr Hamid Hussain
Some questions came my way about ISPR and following was the response. Every officer posted to ISPR should read Brig. R Siddiqi’s book. It is out of print but I’ll be happy to lend them my own copy.
Battle of Narrative – Public Relations of Pakistan Army
“The expansion of its image gradually cuts the military establishment adrift from its professionalism, and it succumbs to a kind of narcissism, loving its media-contrived image too well to brook any rival image”. Brigadier ® A. R. Siddiqi; Former Director General of Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR).
Army is the dominant and most powerful institution of Pakistan. Every conflict between army and civilian institutions results in a competing narrative from each party. Armed forces manage its narrative through Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR). There are few officers from air force and navy but ISPR is mainly manned by army officers. During direct military rule, army chief is also President and information ministry is used for communication. ISPR is the main channel for communication when army is not directly controlling the levers of power. Public opinion in Pakistan is very positive about armed forces and any criticism on professional grounds is usually very limited. Unfortunately, any criticism is viewed by armed forces as challenging its authority and equated with anti-state activity.
ISPR has evolved over seventy years into a huge media machine with a large bureaucracy. It was a small entity headed by a Lieutenant Colonel rank officer and today headed by a Major General rank officer. Previous Director General (DG) ISPR was a Lieutenant General rank officer. It was backwater for officers not destined for further promotion. This changed in the last two decades. The importance of a stint as DGISPR can be gauged from the fact that DGISPRs have been posted to important combat formations. One DGISPR became Chief of General Staff. In the past, a brief statement was given to DGISPR to pass it on to the press. Now, DGISPR sits in important high level meetings and travels with army chief on foreign travels. The horizon has also expanded from brief press statements to frequent press conferences and extensive use of print, electronic, digital and social media as well as big budget productions.
At the time of independence in 1947, Pakistan kept the services of British senior officers as Pakistani officers were too junior and not experienced. Ambitious officers started to openly criticize British officers under the guise of nationalism and started to jockey for promotions. Major General Nawabzada Agha Muhammad Raza, Major General Nazir Ahmad, Brigadier (later Lieutenant General) Muhammad Azam Khan, Brigadier (later Major General) Akbar Khan and Brigadier (later Major General) Sher Khan started to cultivate then small press corps. They leaked rumors of their promotions to press to the consternation of British Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) General Douglas Gracey.
In 1958, when General Ayub Khan became Chief Martial Law Administrator, he brought Brigadier F. R. Khan to run ministry of information. Brigadier Khan wanted to control all access therefore ISPR under naval Commander Maqbool Hussain was pushed in the background. Brigadier Khan was also appointed head of Bureau of National Research & Reconstruction (BNR&R) that was a combination of public relations and intelligence. Special branch of police was integrated with BNR&R. Chief of General Staff (CGS) Major General (later General) Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan was appointed Chairman of Capital Development Authority (CDA) for construction of new capital of the country at Islamabad. Yahya assigned ISPR for public relations of his own project. In March 1966, when Yahya was appointed Deputy C-in-C and C-in-C designate, he held a meeting with ISPR officer directing him to lay low until assumption of command in September and then ‘go full blast’. Yahya personally reviewed the 1965 war documentary produced by ISPR before release. He ordered removal of many shots including General Musa decorating Major General (later Lieutenant General) Akhtar Hussain Malik while ordering inclusion of his own shots. In the presence of towering Field Marshal and President Muhammad Ayub Khan, Yahya fraternalize with junior officers. He preferred to show ‘collective strength’ and always preferred pictures with young officers. After Martial Law in 1969, Yahya chose information secretary Syed Ahmad for self-promotion. Retired Major General ® Nawabzada Sher Ali Khan Pataudi was appointed minister of information and national affairs and he took the regime on the ideological dead end street. Sher Ali’s work was strengthened by creation of National Security Council (NSC) under Major General Ghulam Umar. After military operation in East Pakistan in March 1971, civil and military information operations in eastern wing were put under Major General Rao Farman Ali who was in charge of civil affairs. A psychologist Dr. Jilani considered an authority of Bengali psychology was appointed as advisor to army’s media team.
After separation of East Pakistan in 1971, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto emerged as powerful ruler. State machinery was only for sole projection of Bhutto. ISPR officers would cultivate friends in press corps to get an odd picture or news item about army chief published in newspapers. After 1977 coup, General Zia ul Haq (r 1977-1988) appointed Major General Mujib ur Rahman as information minister and he controlled state run radio and television and ISPR receded in background. During civilian rule (1989-1999), ISPR reverted to its primary role of communicating armed forces message and the cycle was repeated with 1999 coup of General Pervez Mussharraf and civilian rule (2008-present).
In the last two decades, emergence of dozens of private television channels in Pakistan and extensive use of social media has changed the information landscape. ISPR has also rapidly expanded in this changed environment. Former DGISPR Lieutenant General Asim Salim Bajwa was instrumental in transformation of ISPR. Bajwa is a good officer with highest marks on Officer Efficiency Index (OEI) that determines promotion. He served as Deputy Military Secretary of General Pervez Mussharraf and helped him write his memoirs. He served as DGISPR under two army chiefs (General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and General Raheel Sharif). Over projection of army chief was so obvious that it was criticized by many army officers as not good for the institution. His stint as DGISPR was not the high mark of his career and he took the game to another level bordering on sycophancy. This was resented by professional officers and he was ridiculed by fellow officers as ‘twitter-in-chief’ and ‘Goebbels of Pakistan’. Current army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa realized the error and has ordered toning down the projection.
There is also some overlap between ISPR and intelligence agencies; Military Intelligence (MI) & Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). In the days of dominance of print media, a monthly check from army would keep the newspaper or magazine editor on the right side of General Head Quarters (GHQ). Major media houses of Pakistan are owned by big business interests. They know their limits as far as criticism of army is concerned. A phone call to newspaper editor ensures that critical articles will not be published and any analyst discussing uncomfortable subjects will be removed from the panel. Friendly anchors and analysts are sometimes given guidelines suggesting which stories to highlight and which to downplay.
Social media was one avenue where control was difficult. ISPR uses its own social media accounts to convey its message. In January 2017, army moved with stealth to scuttle this avenue of dissent. Five bloggers were abducted in one week and everyone was convinced that it was the work of army’s intelligence agencies. During their disappearance, a robust campaign was launched on television and special media against bloggers portraying them as anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam. Charges of blasphemy were leveled against them in their absence endangering their lives. Three weeks later, all five reached home as mysteriously as they disappeared. They were tortured during captivity and told to keep quiet and not try to seek any legal course. Later, all left the country and no one heard about them anymore. After this episode, several Pakistani youths shut down their social media accounts and now most are hesitant to express any critical view of the army.
The balance of power can be judged from a simple fact that army’s spokesperson; a serving Major General rank officer Asif Ghafoor issues a tweet ‘rejecting’ the notification from Prime Minister’s office on April 29, 2017. Three months later Major General Asif Ghafoor is still at his job while Prime Minister is disqualified and sent home by Supreme Court. Neither the army brass nor Major General Asif Ghafoor has the common sense to understand the absurdity. Such things create very bad optics as far as international audience is concerned. No matter what was the context of this tweet, it would have been better if Ghafoor was moved out of ISPR and assigned to another post. Every army has public relations department that communicates message to public. If this function is performed in a professional and candid environment, it serves the purpose. However, when it is used for outright propaganda, undermining of other institutions of the state or unnecessary projection of army chief or senior officers, it makes another dent in professionalism of armed forces.
“Excessive self-love produces a strong sense of self-righteousness and self-complacency suicidal for the military profession”. Brigadier ® A. R. Siddiqi; Former Director General of ISPR.
Brigadier ® A. R. Siddiqi. The Military in Pakistan: Image and Reality (Lahore: Vanguard Books, 1996)
August 27, 2017
Defence Journal, September 2017