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Sinister attempt to ‘tame’ media

Updated October 20, 2018

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The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

THE government seems bloody-minded in wanting to ‘regulate’ media through a ‘one-window’ operation; which will be achieved through a new law and regulatory body that will represent a clubbed-together version of all media regulators in existence today.

Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry has told the Senate Standing Committee on Information & Broadcasting that the draft of the law had been sent to ‘all the stakeholders’ and listed them. Missing from the reported list of stakeholders is any journalists’ representative body.

Read: A look at media censorship during the British Raj leaves us asking how much progress Pakistan has really made

The owner-dominated Council of Pakistan News­paper Editors (CPNE) is indeed on the list, but I know from my own experience as editor that there are few ‘working editors’ who are CPNE members — I was not one.

One wonders why the government is so determined to bring in yet another law ‘so nobody can be defamed’ — or is there some other agenda which is not yet in the public domain?

The first imperative for any forward movement is the circulation of the draft among journalists’ bodies such as the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists. And if there happens to be more than one such body, then each should be consulted.

Take a look: Why media censorship is problematic

Even if this is done, there are many pitfalls as the government proceeds to implement its desired policy, where, in the words of the minister under the new law, “no one will be able to defame anyone”. The minister will know that defamation is a criminal act under the existing law of the land.

And it covers both libel and slander. So one wonders why the government is so determined to bring in yet another law ‘so nobody can be defamed’ — or is there some other agenda, which is not in the public domain at this point?

And let me spell out what hidden agenda I am fearful of. It is not a secret that there are organisations in the country that transgress their mandate and constitutional and legal boundaries in the name of national security/interest.

The new old censorship: when power trumps truth

Prime Minister Imran Khan and his chief spokesman Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry have taken great pride in saying that, unlike in the past, all state institutions are on ‘the same page’ now. In fact, the former has pooh-poohed any justifiable civil-military friction even in the past, blaming whatever there might have been on ‘dishonest’ politicians.

While such civil-military bonhomie augurs well both for the longevity of the current government and will also serve the defenders of our territorial, ideological and moral integrity well, this must not come at the cost of a silenced media.

Questions of national security should be every concerned Pakistani’s business and should not be the domain of a handful, as it has an impact on our collective well-being. With one voice, the whole country has expressed sincere gratitude to our selfless martyrs and lionised our battlefield soldiers.

Equally, each one of us has the right to question and call for course correction when it can demonstrably be seen that a policy or measure has been counterproductive, and continuing down that path can cause more harm than good.

Muzzling anyone attempting to express an opinion which appears contrary to institutional wisdom at any given point will be a tragedy. Nobody in our current environment will risk limb and liberty, or life, if a higher purpose (ie national interest) is not served.

And this was just one concern. There are others as well. That the current government is on one page with other state institutions can easily be understood with the sort of elbow room made available to it. Imran Khan is seen as an inspirational leader by his followers — one who needs be emulated eyes shut.

This fact alone would compel us to believe that the entire government is on the same page — but is it? Well, if you ask me my opinion, I would say it is on the same page, but has often struggled to speak with the same voice.

Just examine the statements of our various government leaders such as Prime Minister Khan, Finance Minister Asad Umar, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry and top prime ministerial adviser Dr Ishrat Husain on the issue of whether the country will approach the IMF for a bailout.

If one were to juxtapose their words of wisdom shared over the issue (I won’t mention what they said while in opposition, as that was then) at different points in time since they came into office, I would lay myself open to being charged with an attempt to defame them, whatever the law.

The spiralling concern about the well-being of the economy is justified, given the nose-diving forex reserves and the apparently confusing, and often contradictory, position of the government leaders on how the challenges will be tackled.

I am restricting myself to the tops guns and will not even refer to lesser ministers/spokespersons: one of whom attributed the fall in the value of the rupee to large-scale dollar purchases by ‘leaders of the opposition parties’; while the other keeps quoting rather shoddy stats on a wide variety of issues pointlessly.

At a time when the government needs to get its own act (and words) in order to reassure Pakistanis that they are in safe hands, for it to focus on regulating the media through an unprecedented solitary regulator would seem a case of misplaced priorities, if one were to give it the benefit of the doubt.

In the worst-case scenario, it may be a sinister attempt to police and silence all dissenting voices in the media, so that the state-approved narrative is the only one that can be heard or seen to the exclusion of all other narratives.

Over the years, several Pakistani leaders — whether military or civilian — have tried repeatedly to mimic Stalin-like authoritarianism so their word goes unchallenged. You know where they are found now? In the dustbin of history.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, October 20th, 2018