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Coercing the media

Updated April 18, 2018

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AN unannounced censorship seems to have been imposed on the media. The restrictions have certainly not been imposed by the federal government or any regulatory body. Still, the media houses are compelled to follow a diktat. Opinion pieces violating ‘guidelines’ have reportedly been withdrawn by the management of some leading newspapers for fear of being penalised. Indeed, TV channels are much more vulnerable to the threat. And that fear is not unfounded.

Over the past weeks, a TV channel has reportedly been taken off by cable operators or shuffled out of the main bouquet of news channels as ‘punishment’ for being too ‘outspoken on certain sensitive issues’. Such a clampdown, in violation of the directives of Pemra, the electronic media regulator, is more effective in the cantonment areas where certain ‘blacklisted’ newspapers are not allowed to be distributed. No one can dare challenge these unlawful and arbitrary actions.

What we are witnessing is described by some analysts as the creeping expansion of the power of the ‘deep state’. It is not just about media gagging or the increasing number of cases related to enforced disappearances, it is also about the growing perception of political manipulation by ‘invisible forces’, often referred to as namaloom afraad. The recent political re-engineering in Balochistan and allegations that the Senate chairman elections were ‘managed’ have reinforced the apprehension.

Punitive actions against the press will only sharpen polarisation and encourage non-professionalism.

Not surprisingly, the latest desertion from the ranks of the PML-N lawmakers, too, is being attributed to a perceived wider plan to restrict the power base of the ruling party in its stronghold in Punjab before the elections. However exaggerated the suspicion may sound, it is not unfounded given our shadowy political history where such manipulation has not been unprecedented.

With the political crisis getting deeper, there is a growing feeling of coerciveness accompanied by the weakening of the authority of state institutions notwithstanding the growing assertiveness of the top judiciary. In fact, the current judicial overreach encroaching on the domain of the executive has also allowed the deep state to strengthen its stranglehold.

What is commonly meant by the deep state is the security establishment. But the term also includes other non-elected institutions such as the bureaucracy. By definition, the deep state means “organisations that are said to work secretly in order to protect particular interests and to rule a country without being elected”.

Subjected to long periods of direct military rule over the decades, the country has seen many fundamental freedoms curbed, including the right to expression. From direct censorship under authoritarian generals to other forms of pressure exerted by civilian governments, the media’s gains have been hard-won. Unfortunately, the weakening of democratic institutions such as parliament has provided a greater opportunity to forces outside the government to get more deeply involved in domestic politics while attempting to thwart basic rights.

The removal from office of prime minister Nawaz Sharif has deepened the political crisis in the country and has brought to the surface various contradictions that seem extremely difficult to manage. While trying to fill the vacuum, these forces seek to curb any voice of dissent. The threshold has been further reduced by the growing internal and external security challenges.

Many believe that the unannounced censorship of the media may be a part of a wider plan. The media houses reportedly receive ‘advice’ on what should or should not be telecast or printed — all in the name of national security interest. In fact, the pressure can be so intense that oftentimes, even if there is no such ‘advice’, the owners and editors of certain media houses indulge in self-censorship in an attempt to remain on the right side of the powers that be.

Freedom of expression and freedom of press along with the right to vote and the right to a fair trial are critical parts of a liberal democracy. Any move by an elected government or an unelected organisation to curb fundamental rights is a violation of the Constitution. And it is certainly not the job of elements of the security establishment to decide what should or should not be covered by the media. Freedom of expression is one of the biggest achievements of the democratic movement in Pakistan and a free media has helped strengthen civil society.

Indeed, there is a need for the media to be more responsible and formulate a code of ethics to maintain a higher degree of professionalism, as freedom of expression comes with a sense of responsibility. But curbing that freedom on whatever pretext will not help instil a more ethical culture. Instead, such punitive actions will only sharpen polarisation and encourage non-professionalism such as the alleged move to create a parallel pliant media.

Such a divisive approach will be extremely harmful not only to democracy, but also the country’s integrity. It could lead to the further widening of the gap between the security establishment and civil society. The country has paid hugely for the suppression of democratic rights in the past and it cannot afford any reversal of the democratic process.

Any move to crack down on the media for whatever reason on the eve of a general election that promises to lead to a historic second transition from one elected government to another raises questions about the fairness of the polls. What the elements of the security establishment fail to understand is that a free discussion and debate on critical issues increases faith in the state. Suppressing free debate leads to more discontent, a lesson we have failed to learn from our own history.

There is little probability that the democratic political process will be completely derailed. But the growing perception of the deep state increasingly getting involved in alleged political manipulation raises apprehensions that we may be heading towards a ‘managed’ or ‘guided’ political dispensation.

The writer is an author and journalist.

zhussain100@yahoo.com

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, April 18th, 2018