INFORMATION Minister Pervaiz Rashid recently emphasised the PML-N government’s support for free media, acknowledging that it’s vital for promoting democracy. Ironically, that was one of the first things General Pervez Musharraf said after seizing power, in part to distinguish himself from his predecessor Nawaz Sharif, only to be ousted a decade later through a movement fuelled by his attempts to censor the media.
Rashid’s remarks are welcome, especially after IT Minister’s Anusha Rehman’s Google fumble. Of particular note is his claim that the ministry has abolished all ‘secret funds’, used by the last government to pay off journalists with cash and perks. If true, this is a good first step to address the widespread corruption and co-option of the media. But it remains to be seen whether this signals a paradigm shift in the government’s approach to media.
Pakistani governments, civilian and military alike, have long viewed the media as a tool to further their agenda. Using favours and threats, the state pressurises the media to espouse particular narratives, leave certain questions unasked, and keep its accountability function in check.
Sharif currently has a public mandate, popular policies and the legitimacy these bestow, and could thus withstand a fair amount of criticism. Moreover, unlike his predecessors, he has had the mainstream commercial media’s goodwill since the lawyers’ movement (the problems inherent in this media bias are the subject of another column).
And then there’s the matter of a bad reputation to live down: everyone remembers Sharif’s heavy-handed attempts during his last term to muzzle the media by impounding newsprint and harassing journalists. As such, the prime minister is well positioned to alter the state’s dynamic with the media, empowering the latter to be truly independent.
Media freedom is essential for democracies to function, and is particularly important for Pakistan at this juncture. The ever-worsening security situation across the country demands thorough and even reporting on human rights, the performance of civilian law-enforcers and security forces, and issues such as militant financing and arms trafficking.
Meanwhile, the ongoing process of political devolution calls for increased accountability, not only at the national level but also at the provincial and district level. And a government that has put economic reform, infrastructure development and service delivery at the forefront calls for greater transparency; the media are needed to poll public opinion on mega-projects, investigate procurement practices, and amplify marginal voices, for example, of displaced populations or environmentalists.
These are just a few of the key demands on the media in coming years.
In the short-term, there are practical steps the government can take to demonstrate its regard for media freedom. Pakistan is one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists: 42 have been killed (23 of them murdered) in the past decade in connection with their work.
According to Roots of Impunity, a new report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, not one murder of a journalist has been solved — no case has gone through a credible trial, and no one has been convicted for these murders. Since this impunity has intensified violence against journalists, Sharif should urgently reopen all cases of journalist killings and facilitate investigators to ensure that perpetrators are punished. This is a necessary first step towards making the media independent.
The government should also begin the process of reforming media policy. While this is an extensive undertaking that requires multi-stakeholder consensus, some initial steps can be taken swiftly. The broadcast media and telecoms regulators, Pemra and PTA, must be restructured and the practice of government appointments to key posts scuttled in order to ensure the independence of these bodies.
The government should also review and better implement cross-media ownership laws in order to prevent further media concentration, and put strict rules in place regarding transparency of media ownership. It is also high time that Pakistan licensed community radio stations to improve the diversity and plurality of the media landscape.
Greater challenges for media freedom exist online. It is well known that the government has blocked thousands of websites that contain politically contentious material. According to a recent report by Citizen Lab, an independent research group in Canada, the government is using Netsweeper, an online filtering technology, on PTCL’s network.
Netsweeper enables the government to categorise and bulk filter billions of websites and easily block those containing ‘sensitive topics’. This is in direct violation of Article 19 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees access to information.
It is imperative that this process be made more transparent: the government must declare what technologies it has procured and how they are being used. It also must clarify its criteria for censoring websites and publish an up-to-date list of all censored content. Finally, the composition and powers of the inter-ministerial committee overseeing net censorship has to be made public.
On a more general note, if Sharif has any foresight, he must prevent media censors from hiding behind the veil of blasphemy laws. There is already a terrible precedent in the country of justifying the blocking of politically sensitive content by terming it blasphemous.
Perversely, this trick generates public support for media censorship, irrespective of the nature of the content. In the short-term, the authorities will find this an effective way to block inconvenient or embarrassing material. But in the long run, blasphemy accusations will emerge as the surest way to censor criticism, opposing viewpoints, or revelations about scams and scandals, making media freedom — and the democratic practices it enables — completely impossible.
For a third-time prime minister who seeks to forever enshrine democracy in Pakistan, that would be a terrible legacy.
The writer is a freelance contributor.