First Person | Media Management

Intolerance of criticism is a major reason behind blacklisting some journalists who try to do their job objectively

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

First they wanted to see the final version of their interviews before it appeared in print, because they feared being misquoted;

Then they stopped giving interviews, preferring written answers, because they could control the communication better;

Then they started insisting on whetting the headlines and quotes before printing, because they didn’t want the journalists to assess them;

And then they wanted to dictate the kind of articles that could be published on them or their service, because they were the final judges of themselves.

My apologies to late Martin Niemöller for mutilating his famous and poignant poem on the silence of the German intellectuals against Nazi intolerance and violence. However, there are reasons why I allowed myself to get inspired by the German pastor and theologian’s famous speech-cum-poem, ‘First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out…’ The first was the temptation to use its sequencing.

But the more important reason to invoke the memories of that poem was to underline the dangerous compromises, we as media, often make primarily out of ignorance, but also out of sheer laziness. As a result, media is not looked at as means for communication or dissemination of information but as a tool for publicity for the State and its instruments of power like the military and the paramilitary (who incidentally are the focus of this article). From this distorted prism, the services only see media as either with them or against them; which conveniently is stretched to being nationalist or anti-nationalist. That the media, with few exceptions, is also a cog in the wheel of nation-building, is ignored.

The origin of this distorted thinking can be traced to the early years of the last decade, when the proliferation of media, both print and broadcast, brought home the importance of communicating the right messages to create positive public opinion. Fortunately, both the military and the paramilitary those days had articulate leadership, which was adept at communication and confident of its capabilities.

But gradually as communication skills started floundering and confidence started to wane, reliance on orchestrated public relations (PR) increased. Services developed the concept of media management, which by definition implied ‘controlling of things or people’ by even trickery if required. The purpose of media management was to ensure favourable press all the time; failing which, no press at all. From this, arriving at ‘with us’ or ‘against us’ dividing line was just a short step.

The PR personnel at military/ paramilitary started to keep a list of journalists who were with them or against them. Of course, the list was flexible, because most journalists do not operate on the principal of being with or against a service. Most journalists look for a story, which is not false, and would earn them praise from the editor. Unlike any other profession, a journalist hangs out her abilities in public every day. For a professional journalist, his/ her future in journalism depends upon his/ her credibility; that’s how he/ she gets promoted, gets higher salary, better job and so on. Sometimes, they write articles favourable to a particular service and sometimes unfavourable depending upon the events and their importance. Hence, it is quite common for a journalist to swing from one list to another, often without their knowledge.

On the ground, media management works at several levels. The immediate level is of the PR person. His most frequently used tool is friendship with the journalist. ‘I thought you were my friend, how could you do this?’ or ‘You will get me in trouble with my boss, friend’ or ‘Why don’t you just drop this story for now. I promise I will get you a better story soon.’ The next level is of the officer senior to the PR, who has access to the top boss. He uses his access as bait to lure the journalist. ‘We can get you the interview with the boss’ or ‘We can get you the clearance to visit one of our field area’ or ‘We will give you exclusive photographs.’ And so it goes.

At the root of this management lies intolerance of criticism, whether of the institution or the individual. This sensitivity to criticism runs so deep that the individuals speaking on behalf of the institution rarely see the context of the criticism. Recently, an officer of the rank of an inspector general called FORCE to say how it dared to publish an article critical of the force’s promotion policy written by an ex-serviceman in the issue which featured the interview of ‘his’ director general. “We gave you access to the DG. You should have checked with us what articles you could carry in the issue that had his interview,” he raged.

It probably didn’t cross his mind that his demand was not only impossible but ludicrous, because he was convinced that as a serving officer, only he and his ilk could judge the service. Forget journalists, even retired officers no longer have that right, unless of course, they are lauding the service.

Not only does this myopic intolerance defeat the whole purpose of communication, it undermines the role of the media as opinion-makers and conscience-keepers of the nation. It would really be a sad day for us as a nation if this comes to pass.


Call us