The new old censorship: when power trumps truth

In the run-up to the general election, can the media resist increasingly complex curbs on press freedom?
Published May 3, 2018

Last month, several regular English-language columnists were informed by editors that their columns would not be published.

For the first time in the 10 years he has written for The News, Mosharraf Zaidi’s article was not published by the newspaper.

Posting his article on Twitter, he wrote, “Strong nations cultivate robust debate. Weak ones fear it. Pakistan is stronger than it is allowed to be.”

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When lawyer Babar Sattar’s article was pulled out of the same newspaper, he tweeted it using the hashtag #TheAgeOfFreelyControlledMedia. Stories published in the newspaper have been deleted from its web edition.

While the press is no stranger to censorship in a country that has experienced decades under military dictatorship, today, divisions among the media have weakened its ability to resist undemocratic pressure.

This year, on World Press Freedom Day, the global call to protect independent journalism from attacks and ensure the prosecution of crimes against journalists coincides with a decline of media freedoms in Pakistan — that too, significantly, on the eve of a general election.

In a new report, media rights watchdog, Freedom Network (FN) has recorded more than 157 attacks on journalists between May 2017 and April 2018, 55 of them occurring in Islamabad alone.

While threats from militants have significantly reduced, the federal capital has emerged as the most dangerous place for journalists. In its stead, state agencies are posing serious threats.

Speech limits: Where did censorship originate from?

Critical opinions in nascent democracies like ours are persecuted because of weak institutions, limited legal frameworks and lack of political will, which are all antithetical to a free media.

Nonetheless, the consequences for the media remain the same: self-censorship. “[There] is pressure from the right, left and centre. I cannot write according to my own will. How can I be responsible if I am told what to write?” a former secretary general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists explained.

Defining red lines

In the current climate, columnists have said they were asked not to write on ‘sensitive’ subjects. Coverage of the rights-based Pashtun Tahafuz Movement is one such issue.

Talat Aslam, editor at The News International, explains why: “We were told to lie low on reporting about it since it blows apart a huge part of the [security establishment’s] narrative. For years, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas were under a complete media blackout, we only received Inter-Services Public Relations statements about the numbers of militants killed. For the first time, we are hearing from its leaders about issues we have never spoken about. It was when the rhetoric was perceived as being anti-army, and when intervention of Kabul was suspected, that the blackout was ordered.”

In the run-up to the general election, can the media resist increasingly complex curbs on press freedom?

For tribal journalists, they know only too well to stay on the right side of the military, said Rasool Dawar, a reporter from North Waziristan. For him, pushback against the press embargo by young Pakhtun activists on social media has not trickled down to him being able to write on similar issues, such as enforced disappearances.

The Jang Group’s Geo TV was pushed off the airwaves across most of the country — a ban neither sanctioned by the government’s media regulatory body, Pemra, nor its Ministry of Information.

Cable operators claim they were instructed on what channels to bury down the lineup order or even remove.

Many journalists and editors said they either receive ‘directives’ on what news to spike, or are self-censoring content, fearing a similar reprisal.

Senior journalist Naseem Zehra viewed this as a reflection of the military establishment’s insecurity.

“Any kind of censorship has to be condemned. There are no ifs and buts. The media must wrestle space that it has legitimately earned.”

Censoring any criticism of the military and suppressing any perceived bias towards the PML-N — including media coverage of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s anti-judiciary speeches after his disqualification — are prerequisites for staying in business.

“I can’t remember it being so bad. There was pressure during the Zia-Junejo period, but now it’s more brazen and authoritarian. Based on what happened in the Senate election and Khawaja Asif’s disqualification, what kind of election are we going into?” Mr Aslam asked.

Senior journalist Hamid Mir believes, “Geo should take an editorial position, but not become Sharif’s lawyer.”

He explained the latest phase of censorship is not unheard of for journalists, who have always faced uncertainty and fear.

“It was worse in 2015, when journalists were killed. But, today, we have to pre-record our once live programmes, and articles are made to disappear.”

A divided media

There has been little reaction to such oppressive directives from opposition parties and certain media outlets.

According to PTI leader Asad Umar, the party has a “reasonable relationship with the electronic media. It is not particularly acrimonious. No political party can pressure the media but governments can and they do.”

Asked why his party had not spoken against media blackouts, he said: “The biggest threat to media freedoms is the use of money [to influence the press] by the sitting government.”

Recall when former president General Pervez Musharraf cracked down on private TV channels in 2007, political parties and editors alike rallied against the move.

This time round, none of the opposition parties have protested against this high-handedness. Moreover, increased infighting between certain media groups has atomised the industry.

The mainstream narrative in Pakistan about its press is that it is out of control, so when a media house is being asphyxiated and censorship ‘directives’ are followed by many media groups, it is not perceived as a damage to freedom of expression — even by sections of the media itself.

But, given what is at stake, such repression portends disaster.

Published in Dawn, May 3rd, 2018