Looking at Cyril Almeida’s story through the lens of press-state relations

Editions: since I first published this essay here, I have made some minor editions which the reader will come across in line brackets.

These days a story Act against militants or face international isolation, civilians tell military written by a Pakistani journalist and Dawn newspaper staffer, Cyril Almeida, has created quite a buzz in the Pakistani media sphere. Naturally when stories any where on critical policy matters of national interest enter the public sphere they are usually met with considerable scrutiny, analysis and some form of controversy. What makes the Pakistani case so compelling in my opinion are firstly the actors involved; a sitting government, a military establishment and a well reputed news organisation, and secondly; a highly speculative buzz most of which ignores journalism practice as a basis to ground analysis. In this essay I attempt to examine the controversy through the lens of a theory of press-state relations in the United States. Resulting analysis won’t be a precise or the only explanation of the incident. But by using established knowledge it may offer some viable explanation on the veracity of the story and what that implies.

 

It is widely established that journalist look mostly to government officials as the source of most of their daily reporting. There are many explanations for this but Lance W. Bennett (1990) classical hypothesis neatly summarises its major consequence, that:

Mass media professionals, from the boardroom to the beat, tend to ‘’index’’ the range of voices and viewpoints in both news and editorials according to the range of views expressed in mainstream government debate about a given topic. (p.106) 

Now Mr. Almeida’s story is controversial for two major reasons; first due to sensitive timing the story seems fabricated, as from a theoretical view its assertions fall outside present debates within government and policy circles. Relatedly, second, the government believes the story to be ‘speculative’, ‘misleading and factually incorrect’ because it has no source. And to my knowledge no public statement has been released by the ISPR to dispel these notions.

Lets start with the issue of the elusive source.

Indexing applies to ‘behaviour of prestige news organisation that set professional standards and influence news agenda’ and exclude those that can have an ideological sway due to small audiences and/or specific tastes. So for instance it can more credibly be applied to Daily Dawn a newspaper well regarded internationally and locally. Notwithstanding its vehement defence of information that was “verified, cross-checked and fact-checked”, indexing and every day journalism norms leads us to conclude with some confidence that Mr Almedia’s story indeed came from government and/or state officials. [Which raises doubts and questions about the governments claim that the story is fabricated and why the military has chosen to remain silent.]

Next,

It’s not enough to simply hold the norm as true if theory says so. The context matters. Political unity over Kashmir in these troubled times matter. Mr. Almeida’s story perhaps does not represent opinion within policy circles? It’s a fabrication that hints of mischief. The theory’s assumptions can shed some light here.

In setting the range of acceptable voices and opinions such a newspaper will allow on an issue, it will select official sources likely to influence outcome of events rather than isolated and extreme voices. The assertions in the story, such as disagreement over state policy on militants, could have only made it to print because they came from powerful sources. Not that powerful voices are credible by default. Source selection is based on a newspaper’s understanding of the current political calculus and a stable majority opinion within government and other policy circles. It stands to reason that matters of vital national interest would only warrant relevant powerful voices through the news gate and exclude deviants.

And had the official policy on militants – including disagreements – as reported in the newspaper actually included deviant views, or fabrications, the ‘circumstances surrounding such inclusions usually involve civil disobedience, protests, or lawless acts that establish negative interpretative contexts for those voices’ (p. 107). So had the report not represented mainstream opinions in policy circles, the story would have proceeded or preceded by a volatile situation. So far this has not happened publicly, at least in how we Pakistanis understand volatile situations. Other than Mr. Almeida being intimidated through the Exit Control List.

So, is the ‘potentially ground-shifting exchange between the ISI DG and several civilian officials’ as portrayed, accurate? Theoretically they are insofar as, a) the newspaper indeed carried professional norms of reporting it is regarded for, b) the story reflected present tensions in official policy circles that the newspaper was able to exploit and c) when the story landed there was no serious law and order situation surrounding it. [Not yet any way.]

[Unfortunately we don’t have more information to make an accurate judgement here. My hunch is that a meeting on those issues did happen but the ‘ground shifting exchange’ as depicted, among the most senior leaders of our country, seems a bit unreasonable.]

There are limitations however to these explanations and indexing to some extent accounts for them. For instance, the kind of issue determines applicability; ‘everyday events, crises, and policies (are more applicable) than…“special coverage” of things like elections that may have a normative-ritual order of their own’. [So unless we are going through unusually special political times this limitation is invalid. Although, considering the PTI rallies just around the corner one could think otherwise. Which would imply that we are in for those nazuk times yet again.]

 

In concluding I would simply add that all actors involved in the story including Daily Dawn may claim to act in the public interest. But if that requires bringing the voice of ordinary Pakistani’s on militancy to print, it would hardly happen. Indexing implies that professional news reporting operates independent of expressed public opinion.

Reference

Bennett, W. L., (1990) ‘Towards a theory of press-state relations in the United States’, International Journal of Communication, 40: 103–127.

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Abstract of my thesis proposal

On 20th July, in an open seminar headed by my thesis committee, I presented my research proposal. The proposal defence is a process that we (post-graduate students) were told is just something everyone goes through, a merry statement that perhaps downplays the and must pass aspect of the process. After much deliberation however, I am now a PhD Candidate and quite keen to get on with field work and collecting data for the various parts of this project. Here I present the working title and abstract of my thesis proposal:

 

Title

Investigating increasing media sensibilities of protests in Pakistan: Dharnas in the electronic media age.

Abstract

This project explores and explains the consequences of increasing media sensibilities on mobilization strategies of protests in Pakistan. The dominant literature on contentious collective action emphasizes the role of communication, with an increasing focus on new media technology. Among scholars interested in the relationship between media and protest, the internet captures the most attention. There are relatively few studies on the role of 24-hour news television, which in some societies is the most game-changing “new media”. In many parts of the world, a commercial and plural television news media are not much older than the public internet, and much more powerful.

This thesis will address the gap by examining how changing media have affected protest movements in Pakistan. It will study Dharnas (protest sit-ins) organized by a major opposition party, comparing how recent protests have changed since the 1990s, which was a period that predates both the internet and commercial news channels in Pakistan. The year 2003 is chosen as a pivotal year as privatization policies formally came in to effect and the government started to issue news television licenses on a commercial basis.

It applies the political process model from social movement studies, which is a well-established framework for explaining how contentious collective action adapts to the political environment and resource availability. The framework gives due regard to the importance of media to movement organizers. Further, this thesis will apply the concept of ‘media logic’ borrowed from the theory of mediatization of politics. According to this theory, media are institutions with a logic that other institutions must adapt to in order to be successful in societies where much of social life, including politics, takes place through media.

The thesis will show that Dharnas, a traditional form of public event, remain extremely relevant to Pakistan’s organizers of contentious collective action, but that they have been transformed by mediatization. It will also show that, in this transformation, television has been more impactful than the internet. It will reveal in detail how the media logic of commercial news channels has shaped the modern Dharna. It will also explore how protest organizers have adapted to the internet that plays a limited albeit a particular role. The study will contribute to media studies’ understanding of how protest activity in semi-democracies is shaped by media pluralisation in the form of television and the internet.