By Ahsan Raza
MPhil Government College University, Faisalabad 2018
This paper attempts to explore leading Pakistani English and Urdu language newspapers’ editorial treatment of the dialogue process between the Pakistani government and the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), using this as a marker to understand agenda setting and framing by the print media to mold public opinion which could result in influencing government’s policies. In the context of TTP-Government talks, there is little understanding of the role played by the print media as an opinion maker and agenda setter as the government and the state first took a position to negotiate and then to cancel peace talks. Though a newspaper is to present contents in objective ways, it does take liberty in its editorial section to put up the newspaper’s stated policy position on a certain issue. The selection of the issue is done by the board of editorial writers of a newspaper, based on its importance to the readers50. An editorial may represent public sentiments and at the same time aims to convince the government and the public to buy its stated position. In the following pages, this research will analyse how the editorial pages covered the Pakistan Government –TTP dialogues on seeking peace in Pakistan. On January 29, 2014, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced in the National Assembly that his government was starting peace talks with the (banned) Tehreek-iTaliban Pakistan (TTP). This initiative of the Government of Pakistan stemmed from the unanimous decision of leaders of the All Parties Conference in Islamabad held on September 9, 2013, recommending that the government should hold talks with the banned TTP to reach a peace deal to stop bloodshed. In the aftermath of 9/11 attacks in America, the US in collaboration with NATO forces invaded Afghanistan to uproot Al Qaeda. This had engulfed Pakistan into a vicious cycle of terrorism and violence. Following this announcement, for almost five years the TTP and Pakistan continued to hold multiple dialogues, while terror attacks and violence in Pakistan persisted and nothing substantive came out; these talks remained empty and inconclusive and the fragile ceasefire broke down. This compelled the government to allow the Pakistan military to launch operation Zarb-i-Azab on June 15, 2014.
Research Questions, Methodology & Theoretical Framework
Occurrence of conflict is sine qua non in relationships between individuals, groups, and nations. Some sort of conflict erupts whenever human beings interact with each other for a long time, and these conflicts can have both positive and negative aspects. Thus most communication experts and sociologists paint not for the eradication of conflict in human relationships but instead to comprehend the nature of conflict they come across, and individuals’ capability to manage and surmount it to escape from the violence that may occur. While the power of media is constrained, as it will never have the capacity to dispose of outfitted clashes out and out or to guarantee enduring peace and wellbeing, Kuusik suggests that media and news coverage can be helpful with refereeing and peace building52. This is because the mass media, through the tools of agenda setting and framing, plays an important role in shaping public opinion, influencing policymakers and analyzing the pressing issues of state and society. . Galtung termed peace journalism as pro-peace, pro-truth, pro-people and pro-solution in contrast with war journalism, which he described as pro-violence, pro-propaganda, pro-elite and pro-differences.53 Galtung and Ruge found that news contents, which glorify some war subjects, can intensify bloodshed54 while events of death and destruction attract more media audience leading to more revenues55, thus creating a cyclical relationship that tends to support war journalism. Howard further adds that even though working media people are determined to conduct unbiased reporting of conflicts, they, however, unknowingly may become a tool for the conflicting parties to spread their objectives, which can result in less peace and more conflict. The research analyzes the extent of editorial coverage of the peace dialogue by leading newspapers; how much stress was given to conflict resolution; what topics were covered while discussing the government-TTP dialogue and lastly what kinds of stances/frames were used in the editorials. For this purpose, the editorials of leading daily English newspapers: Dawn, The Nation, The News, The Express Tribune, The Daily Times, and daily Urdu newspapers: Jang and Nawa-i-Waqt were assessed for the period of January 2014 to July 2014. Both quantitative as well as qualitative analysis was done of the editorials, which were selected through purposive sampling – those containing the key words of ‘peace talks’, ‘peace dialogues’, ‘dialogues’, and ‘talks’ were included in the study. Content analysis of editorials was based on the newspapers’ position on the stances of the Government of Pakistan, the army, the TTP and political parties, regarding the dialogue process. Further, editorials were also analyzed to assess newspapers’ agenda setting role and whether this confirms the theory. For quantitative analysis, the number of related editorials published in each newspaper were calculated, and further, the subject matter of these editorials were categorized as favourable, unfavourable or neutral of the dialogue process. For measurement, the Likert Scale was used, which is often used in social science research to get validity and reliability. In content analysis, reliability is a sort of pact among coders about coders’ categories. In this research, two coders helped the researcher to test inter coder reliability. They, along with the researcher, coded editorials based on select categories. Using Holisti formula, (Reliability = 2M / (N1+N2)), the inter coder reliability was calculated where M is the number of coding rates where two coders agreed, while N1 and N2 represent coding decisions by each of the two coders. After establishing the inter-coder reliability, the total number of all editorials were coded according to the criteria.
The selected newspapers covered peace talks 543 times in the selected time period from January 2013 to July 2013 with Daily Times, an English daily and Nawa-i-Waqt, an Urdu daily giving the most amount of coverage to peace talks with 118 editorials each and both heavily inclined towards an unfavorable view of the peace talks. The coverage of each newspaper as listed in Figure 1 suggests the following points: one, other than The Nation and Jang, all other newspapers had an overall unfavourable view of the peace talks; two, one can’t suggest a difference in position based on the language of the newspaper because The Nation, an English daily had the most favourable view of peace talks of any newspaper; and lastly one also can’t argue that newspapers of the same media group have similar positions, as The Nation’s sister organization, Nawa-i-Waqt was quite unfavourable towards peace talks as compared to The Nation. However, The News and its sister newspaper, Jang both tilted towards a favourable position with Jang editorials taking a favourable position almost nine times to an unfavourable position.
Comparative Analysis of Editorials
Before dialogue: Most newspapers, regardless of government’ difficult position regarding the dialogue, opposed the dialogue with militants. Dawn in its editorial, “The Wrong Choice” dated January 2, 201457 showed skepticism about the government’s stance on dialogues. It criticized the “so-called strategy” to fight militancy through talks with the militants stating: “On Tuesday, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appeared to have authorized Samiul Haq, the so-called godfather of the Afghan Taliban because of its leadership’s ties to the maulana’s infamous madressah in Akora Khattak, to reach out to the TTP and set the stage for dialogue. … But how can a known Taliban sympathizer help achieve that?” Given the history of Samiul Haq’s proTaliban stance, the editorial rightly questioned the Prime Minister’s choice of the interlocutor as it could be seen as a sign of weakness on the part of the government. The government’s stated position was to bring the TTP under the writ of the constitution, whereas the TTP had opposite views. The Nation’s editorial, “A Self destructive Agenda” dated January 12, 201458 taunted the government stating that the choice of ‘middleman’ was “worthy of appreciation in itself”. It also narrated Samiul Haq’s past statements to establish that the middleman was not actually in the middle of the two sides, but rather a Taliban supporter which disqualified him for being government’s representative. These editorials questioned the government’s approach in the talks, viewing it as appeasement. The Nation’s sister organization, the Urdu daily Nawa-i-Waqt took a similar position in its editorial “Prime Minister tasks Maulana Samiul Haq with contacting the Taliban and ground realities … peace is our need but the government had better not expose its weaknesses” dated January 2, 201459. It stated that “the militants had continuously challenged the state’s authority while keeping up terrorist and suicide attacks intermittently and slaying both the officials of security forces and innocent citizens. Besides, they had clearly indicated that they would not surrender at any cost and would continue violating the constitution and rules and regulations of the country. In addition to this, the government policy is confused as the dialogue process with all TTP factions cannot be carried out simultaneously.” Lastly, the Daily Times went even further in its editorial, “To be or not to be” dated January 1, 201460, linking terrorism with development of the economy and nation, stating that “terrorism and law and order would not allow the economy to develop unless some action is taken.” However, other dailies did give more space to the government. For example, Tribune’s editorial, “Finding an interlocutor” dated January 2, 201461 stated that “in the grim and debilitating struggle against forces of death and destruction, any action that promises breakthrough must be initiated if it has the unqualified support of all stakeholders’’, thus acquiescing with the government in selecting the cleric on the basis of his influence among the TTP circle. Pakistan’s largest newspaper in terms of circulation, Jang, supported the decision of the government to open talks with the TTP. In its editorial62, “One more chance for peace” dated January 2, 2014, the newspaper said that overall, the public had favoured the government’s decision to hold dialogue with the TTP. Further, it also eulogized the TTP’s Punjabi commander for accepting the government’s offer for dialogue. This optimism however diminished when blasts in Karachi and Hangu claimed the lives of SP Chaudhry Aslam and teenage student Aitezaz Hasan respectively. Tribune editorial, “Recognising our heroes” dated January 12, 2014 now cautioned the government stating, “we know that the government wants to talk to the TTP — and that is fine as long as it has a strategy in mind and given that it has the mandate to pursue peace talks. Yet, the monotone and metronomic manner in which this strategy has been pursued over the last few months seems less like steadfastness and more like a frightened retreat in the face of adversity by authorities that seem to have no strategy but a one-dimensional mindset that this is a war we cannot win or even fight.” Similarly, The News’ editorial, “TTP’s murder spree” dated January 14, 201463 pinpointed that “as for the peace talks, which the government has been touting ever since it came into power, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has now had to admit that they seem to be a distant prospect”. This statement seemed appropriate as within a week of the announcement of the dialogue, the interior minister looked grimed and hopeless about the success of talks because of continued terrorism in the country. Thus, except for Jang, the above editorials show pessimism regarding the initiative even before the dialogue had taken place. This difference of opinion among newspapers was also reflected in the Parliament as the treasury benches were not yet clear about the future of dialogue. Commenting on the first session of Parliament after a recent spike in terror attacks that was skipped by the Prime Minister, the Dawn’s editorial “Indecision yet again” dated Jan 29, 201464 commented that the Interior Minister’s “waffling on the dialogue option was almost cringe-worthy: talking about talks never was a policy and never will be an effective policy”. The Nation’s editorial “Unnerved and undecided” for the same day65 stated: “One faction is calling for a military operation… The other is insistent on holding peace-talks with the terrorists to resolve matters. The PML-N falls in neither of the two categories. The ruling party is unable to take any decision over the course that must be followed to eradicate terrorism from the country”.
During the dialogue: The peace talks began with a controversy over TTP’s choice of representatives as TTP chose its members from mainstream parties including Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) Imran Khan, and from the religious right. Dawn’s editorial, “The TTP’s choice” dated February 3, 201466 took these parties as an ally of the TTP stating “The outlawed TTP’s nominees for the team that will negotiate with the government four-member committee on behalf of the Pakistani Taliban is terribly revealing — about the nominees and how they are viewed, and not necessarily by the TTP itself. Here, in short terms, are the five nominees: PTI, JI, JUI-F, Lal Masjid, Father of the Taliban. That the religious right in Pakistan has more in common with extremist ideologies than the democratic and constitutional values that Pakistan is meant to be rooted in is an old open secret. Abdul Aziz of Lal Masjid notoriety and Samiul Haq, long dubbed the ‘father of the Taliban’, do not even attempt to hide with which side their sympathies lie. But Imran Khan?” Similarly, the team also came under fire in Daily Times’ especially it’s title “Imran Khan’s embarrassment” dated February 5, 201467 stating that “as far as the TTP is concerned, they have announced what many believe to be the ideal team from their point of view: all pro-Taliban or at the very least sympathetic to them”. This flurry of criticism influenced a deadlock as Imran Khan and JUI-F’s Mufti Kafayatullah chose to withdraw from the TTP’s committee. On this, The Nation’s editorial “Comedy of terrors’’ dated February 5, 201468 wrote, “It seems the cat was set among the pigeons by the government’s naming of a committee to negotiate with the Tehrik Taliban Pakistan (TTP), because the TTP’s own attempts to name a committee has been marred by withdrawals.Not only the committee, but TTP’s demands also came under criticism. The News’ editorial “Agendas” dated February 11, 201469 deliberated Taliban’s wish list and commented, “The 15-point agenda of the TTP is a mixture of demands that are broadly reasonable and some that are completely out of bounds. Asking for equal rights for both rich and poor is surely something that can be accepted by all and calling for an end to drone strikes is something that is already the position of every political party in the country … But then the TTP also wants Sharia law in the courts and Islamic education in schools, and since we know exactly how narrow and twisted the group’s definition of religion is, this is not something the government will be or should be able to accept. Withdrawing troops from the tribal areas and releasing TTP prisoners cannot be carried out either until we are sure that the TTP has truly stopped carrying out attacks.” Similarly, the government’s committee also came under criticism as Tribune’s editorial “Talking peace” dated January 31, 201470 stated that “The government needs to be more forthcoming about the committee’s mandate and the agenda that the talks will follow. Also, it must be noted that no parliamentarian has been included in the committee.” It was only after the TTP offered ceasefire that there was some appreciation of the peace process as Jang’s editorial, “Positive Development: Peace Talks”71 welcomed it saying: “Notwithstanding the fact that the diligent accomplishment of the dialogue process at the first stage is sine qua non for peace building in the country, the whole nation had waited for it for a long time. Leadership of both sides handled these situations with harmony and mutual understanding. Both parties had compromised and the dialogue process was held in an unknown place in North Waziristan”. Breach of Ceasefire: When the ceasefire was breached by the TTP, the Nawa-i-Waqt’s editorial titled “Dialogue is only possible with unconditional ceasefire by the Taliban”72 explained that “the government dialogue committee presented its stance clearly that the dialogue process could not proceed until TTP stopped the violent proceedings. Whereas, TTP commander described the government’s non-serious behavior in dialogue and threatened the government to face unbearable circumstances in case the dialogue could not be continued.”
Overall, the majority of newspapers kept a hardline view during the dialogue process by showing a harsh response towards talking to the militants, who they considered responsible for a relentless spree of death and destruction, and non-believers in the state or the constitution. Though their tenor differed as The Nation called TTP as terrorists while Dawn’s editorial called them militants. Only the Urdu newspaper Jang tilted towards dialogue. But, this newspaper could not come up with a clear condemnation even when militants openly owned up to terrorist attacks. Most took the government to task for its unclear and vague policy to tackle militancy through dialogue, and portrayed negotiations as a sign of state’s surrender to a group of non-state militants who aimed to dictate their terms to a state with a large standing army. Thus, instead of showing restraint, they favored military action against the militants. Even a ceasefire offer by the militants or the army was viewed as a shaky arrangements and a time-buying tactic of the TTP to regroup for another rein of terrorism. Thus, every move by the state to further dialogue was discouraged by a majority of editorials as the newspapers, especially the English press, rejected the dialogue from the very beginning. Writing 543 editorials on the dialogue process by seven selected newspapers over a seven month period attests to the media’s agenda-setting power through the formation of public opinion. As the majority, five out of seven newspapers evoked a negative slant against the dialogue process, this was bound to influence public opinion and pressurize the government against the dialogue process. Conflicts bring testing times for a nation and call for unity, clarity and pro-peace approaches. While the analysis shows the diversity of newsrooms, still too much pessimism in editorials can hamper the objectivity and neutrality needed for peace journalism.
Openly criticizing the state in times of war should be avoided: Media’s role in wars and conflicts is of immense importance. State’s measures towards conflicts, riots, law and order and security related issues should be editorialised after a lot of discussion as in a war-like situation, criticising the state or army often and openly only gives psychological benefit to anti-state factions. It, however, does not mean that wrong policies as well as atrocities by the army or the state should be overlooked, as when media’s reported excesses by army personnel in East Pakistan were not considered by the authorities, it resulted in the fall of Dhaka. Consultations between the media and policy making elite should be encouraged in times of war: During conflicts and wars, the ruling and policymaking elites aside from defense personnel, should consult the media and exchange critical issues, so that either side understands the other’s point of view as clarity of issues and positions will stem rumor mills and generate a clear and correct flow of information.
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