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Formation Commander’s Meeting: A PR Perspective

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Islamabad (Imran Y. CHOUDHRY) :- Former Press Secretary to the President, Former Press Minister to the Embassy of Pakistan to France, Former MD, SRBC Mr. Qamar Bashir analysis :
The recent fiery press conference by the DG-ISPR, while not directly naming the PTI but making its targets clear, stated that forgiveness would not be granted until sought by the accused party. In addition his press conference covered a wide array of topics including law and order, the economy, finance, border management, elections, post-election scenarios, judiciary, and foreign affairs, leaving little for the civilian government to comment on or defend.

Following this comprehensive press conference, the 83rd Formation Commanders Conference on May 30, 2024, as per the ISPR’s press release, addressed critical national security issues. These included discussions on social media, bringing perpetrators of the May 9 incident to justice, supporting the government in economic and investment matters, focusing on the socio-economic development of Balochistan, and addressing the treatment of minorities and Muslims in India.

The major part of the press release was consumed over branding social media activists as digital terrorists and conspirators who in connivance of “foreign cohorts” were carrying out “digital terrorsim” against the state “institutions” to induce discord among the armed forces and the people of Pakistan by peddling blatant lies, “fake news”, and “propaganda”.

On the public relations point of view, using harsh terms like “digital terrorists,” “conspirators,” and “digital terrorism” to describe social media activists indicates a very strong and confrontational stance by the state. This approach appears to be aimed at intimidating and deterring activists, potentially justifying punitive measures against them. However, it risks escalating conflict, polarizing society, undermining the activists’ credibility, and deflecting attention from the core issues they raise. Such language can create a chilling effect on free speech and damage the country’s international image. While addressing genuine threats is crucial, a more balanced approach that combats misinformation while respecting free speech would likely be more effective and less divisive.
The forum declared the alleged planners, perpetrators, abettors, and facilitators of 9th May outrightly as culprits who needed to be brought to justice for the “collective good” of the country, and that without “swift” and transparent dispensation of justice “establishing the rule of law”, “stability in Pakistan” would ever remain “hostage to the machinations” of such elements.
On the public relations point of view, the use of strong language and the apparent pressure on the judiciary to act swiftly against these individuals could be seen as impinging on the independence of the judiciary. The judiciary’s independence is fundamental to ensuring fair and impartial justice. Any perception of undue influence or pressure from the military could undermine public trust in the judicial system and its ability to administer justice without bias. For a robust democracy, it is essential that the judiciary remains free from external pressures and operates based on the rule of law and principles of justice.
On the Public Relations point of view, the forum’s resolution to support the government’s initiatives in areas such as sustainable economic growth, curbing illegal activities, and safeguarding the national database raises questions about the appropriate role of the armed forces in civilian matters. Generally, the primary focus of the armed forces should be on national defense and security. While collaboration between military and civilian authorities can be beneficial, particularly in areas like border security and countering smuggling, the involvement of military leadership in civilian issues such as economic growth, electricity theft, and repatriation of illegal foreigners might blur the lines between military and civilian governance as in democratic societies, civilian matters are typically managed by elected representatives and civilian institutions to ensure that governance remains accountable to the public.
The forum also underlined the need for socio-economic development in Balochistan to counter externally propagated narratives of exclusion, exploited by foreign-sponsored proxies to lead Balochistan’s youth away from peace and progress. Addressing the socio-economic development of Balochistan is a critical issue that requires a coordinated effort between the military and civilian government. While it is essential for the civilian government to take the lead in implementing policies and programs for development, the military can play a supportive role, especially in providing security and infrastructure support in conflict-affected areas a part of a broader strategy that includes input from the civilian government, local communities, and other stakeholders to ensure long-term sustainability and effectiveness.
On the Public Relations point of view the comments made by the formation commander of the Pakistan Armed Forces on issues primarily falling within the domain of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs raise questions about the appropriate role of the military in public diplomacy. While it is understandable for the armed forces to express solidarity with certain causes, such as the Kashmiri people’s right to self-determination or concern over human rights violations, these statements could be perceived as crossing into the realm of foreign policy, which is traditionally the purview of the diplomatic corps. Publicly commenting on these sensitive international issues may risk complicating diplomatic efforts or sending mixed signals about Pakistan’s official foreign policy stance. It is generally more appropriate for such matters to be addressed through official diplomatic channels to ensure coherence and consistency in Pakistan’s foreign policy messaging.

The Pakistan Army, known for its discipline, effectiveness, and operational readiness, is a significant asset to the nation. However, recent events have raised concerns about its image in social and traditional media, as well as among certain sections of society. This trend is worrisome for the country as a whole.

The responsibility for maintaining and enhancing the armed forces’ positive image, as well as addressing any negative perceptions, primarily lies with the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) wing. It is crucial for ISPR to exercise caution and use measured language in its communications to avoid any unintended consequences. In sensitive matters like foreign affairs or regional conflicts, ISPR should use public relations strategies to clearly distinguish between civilian and military roles. The international community recognizes the civilian government as the official representative of the country, and therefore, such matters may be deferred to the government.

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