Ten years of uninterrupted democracy have not been so kind to the fourth estate. We expected much more. At least in terms of real independence. For there is a vast difference between private news outlets and a media that is truly free. Journalists across the country are paying the price of this shortfall every single day. Sadly, this is what happens when those who ought to be in the barracks are not. And when they confuse critique with subversion. At the beginning of this week, Director General of Inter-Services Public Relations (DG ISPR) Major General Asif Ghafoor held a press conference where he underscored the dark side of social media. Yet there was no mention of, say, incitement to religious hatred or false accusations of blasphemy. Rather, “negative propaganda” against the Army was on his mind. Ghafoor was not wrong when he talked of troll social media accounts that spewed nothing but anti-Army content that often flies in the face of ground realities. And he was even right to give everyone a head’s up about how the military establishment has the technology to monitor these accounts. Not that this was ever in doubt. That being said, we have strong reservations over the use of particular graphics during the presentation. For in the words of global media watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists: “Displaying photos of journalists alleged to help push anti-state propaganda in Pakistan is tantamount to putting a giant target on their back.” Indeed, just one day later, two media analysts came under attack in Lahore; though neither featured in the presser. Asad Kharal was intercepted and physically assaulted by masked men on motorbikes close to Allama Iqbal International airport. This is condemnable. As was the abduction of Gul Bukhari; which occurred in the city’s cantonment area. What is therefore needed is a shift in gears. A recognition by the military establishment that it is not exclusively on the receiving end of anti-state activities. Anyone who picks up and tortures journalists is guilty of the same. As is any state institution, civilian or otherwise, that uses bully-boy tactics to prompt the fourth estate to self-censor. Yet non-state actors also are culpable. And this goes back to Maj Gen Ghafoor’ original point about social media trolls. Unfortunately, in recent months many took to Twitter to try and malign Ms Bukhari as a paid-for anti-Army besmircher. Indeed, when news came of her kidnapping, there were those who accused the civil rights activist of a publicity stunt in a bid to tarnish khaki reputation. Incitement is a crime by another name. And can never be a substitute for critical thinking and debate. The media and the uniformed are on the same side when it comes to doing their duty for the greater good of the country. Indeed, we the fourth estate also know what it means to defend Pakistan at all costs only to be accused of playing for the other side. For, as the custodians of democracy, we, too, have suffered casualties. But, then, we have always believed the pen to be mightier than the sword. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees. * Published in Daily Times, June 7th 2018.