Militancy poses a serious threat to the security and stability of Pakistan. While the government and various state institutions are trying to respond in their own way and according to their own capacity, persistent ideological, political and operational ambiguities about the nature and level of militancy not only compound the problem but also add to its intensity.
One critical aspect of this threat, which is largely ignored by the Pakistani state and society, is the militants’ media that is thriving right under the nose of the law enforcement agencies in Pakistan. A wide range of radical and militants’ publications are easily available at news stalls across the country. The militants also use other means of communications, especially the internet, FM radios, CDs and DVDs to reach a wider audience.
These communication tools might be more effective in some areas than the print media given the poor literacy rate and other contributing factors. However, the emphasis of the militants is still on the print media.
Militant groups which regularly issue their publications include the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, Balochistan’s separatists, Pakistani and Kashmir-based jihadi groups and violent sectarian organizations. Their ‘editorial’ policy moves around certain militarily motivated ideological objectives.
A research study titled Militants’ print media in Pakistan: impact and outreach, published by the Islamabad-based research group Pak Institute for Peace Studies, provides a window to the militants’ media in Pakistan. It is very large and has extensive outreach.
According to the study, the number of militants’ publications in Pakistan has crossed 50 and most of these publications have a minimum circulation of 2,000 to 6,000 per week. Apart from issuing their own regular publications, the militants’ media also influences the mainstream media and is gradually expanding its reach and influence, posing significant competition to the mainstream media.
At the same time, there are publications which have no direct link to militant groups but they largely share a common view and goal. They openly support the cause of the militant organizations by disseminating likeminded ideologies and sentiments. One could classify them as part of a larger movement but not belonging to a specific group. The publications of a few madressahs and religious welfare trusts would easily fit into this category.
Although the militants’ media in Pakistan had flourished during the Afghan-Soviet war (1979-88), it did not happen in isolation. It grew as a natural phenomenon parallel to the socio-political and ideological transition that the country was passing through. Although many media experts are still not prepared to acknowledge it as a form of media, one has to accept the fact that the militants’ media has close bonds with the media landscape of Pakistan at large. It cannot be denied that media shapes public opinion and influences the state’s policy decisions.
The study also sheds light on non-militant, Islamic media publications, which is also not a new phenomenon in Pakistan. The sphere of Islamic publications, despite their sectarian and political affiliations, was wide — spanning intellectual debates on religious reforms, dialogue with other faiths and socio-political issues — but the readership was limited. The contributions were from religious scholars, intellectuals, journalists, writers and students of the relevant subject.
In contrast, the new version of Islamic publications, including those issued by religious organizations, madressahs and sectarian groups, is narrow in vision and the audience is not specific. This has not only damaged the image of ‘serious religious publications’ by playing a critical role in propagating militant ideologies in Pakistan but also dealt a fatal blow to the professional ethics of the Urdu mainstream media to a greater extent.
Depending on the country’s political, ideological, economic and socio-cultural realities and circumstances these Islamist and militant elements attempt different methodologies in conveying their messages to the public. If the country’s media landscape is not properly regulated or monitored according to best practices, the interested groups/movements can adopt two possible strategies.
First, they can attempt to penetrate the mainstream media by ‘planting’ likeminded individuals in media houses in order to deliver their ideological, intellectual and political messages to the public. The Jamaat-i-Islami — though in mainstream politics — followed this strategy during the 1960s and 1970s. Second, they could try to develop an alternative media platform of their own. However, both strategies have one goal in common: to influence public opinion and also the mainstream media. The militants are following in the JI’s footsteps and targeting future generations.
Apart from the background and media strategies, these media publications challenge the writ of the state, want to change the state or the structure of the state system according to their own ideology, aspire to bring the state under specific sectarian, religious or ideological influences, and seek separation from the state by suggesting the way of violence.
As far as legal action against such publications is concerned, these publications follow the tactics employed by banned militant groups, which resurface with different names after the ban. On March 6, 2002, the federal and provincial governments banned 22 magazines, the propaganda tools of various religious and militant organizations, but these publications are still available in the market under different names.
The challenge is the resurfacing of these publications under different names following repeated proscriptions, making it an extremely tough task to curb them.
The challenges for the law enforcement agencies are three-fold. First, they have no legal mechanism to ban these publications permanently. When a banned publication reappears, the process to ban it again takes more than eight months.
Second, the banned organizations have ostensibly transformed into charities and, under the existing law, their publications cannot be banned until these charities are declared defunct or as being against the law.
Third, Al Qaeda and Taliban publications such as Al Hateen and Nawa-i-Afghan Jihad etc, are more critical as these publications are spreading takfiri tendencies among vulnerable segments of the youth.
These publications are easily available in certain parts of the country. Tracing the dissemination sources of these publications can also help trace the networks of terrorist organizations.
The writer is a Pakistan-based security analyst. This article first appeared in Dawn, Pakistan’s largest and oldest English daily. Click here to go to the original