A noisy press matters

Published October 23, 2018
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

THERE appears to be no let up in the pressure on the press (which has transformed into the media industry in the times that be). While new channels continue to be launched, the ethics of the industry continue to be problematic and the chorus for curbs seems to be growing.

The new government’s announcements about new laws to regulate the media are being viewed with concern and fear.

This is the worst of times it seems while the best of times has already passed, when the expansion of the industry brought higher salaries, better living conditions and the freedom to say what was left unsaid in the past. But no longer can we count on all this.

Most channels are said to be struggling financially and delayed salaries are the norm, as are layoffs.

Few believe in the unfettered freedom of the industry, especially not those who may wield power. In fact, it is the threat from outside which has finally silenced the debate within.

Take a look: Why media censorship is problematic

Since news channels, the nouveau riche cousin of print, had dominated the field, many had been worried about the flashy, unauthentic and un-journalistic behaviour of those on screen. Like the old elite which had nothing but its old-world values (in the face of decreasing relevance), those from print never missed a chance to berate the newly important on their lack of sophistication. (In recent times, this naval gazing has slowed down as the assault from outside has become imminent.)

Pakistan has never been a Myanmar or a Gulf monarchy where daily newspapers do little reporting.

Adding to this trend was the polarisation of society and politics. We, the journalists, wanted the ‘other’ to be shut down. For the right wing, those who criticised the state needed to be silenced, while for those left of centre, the ‘other’ side included charlatans who should not be allowed on air.

Read: How pressuring the media is risking the quality of our democracy

Freedom of the press was an important right but only for those ‘we’ (whoever ‘we’ may be) considered a real journalist. In the eagerness to get rid of the ‘miscreants’, some of us weren’t too bothered about the precedents it would set for everyone. And slowly and steadily, the perception grew that journalism was a crime. Investigative forces were set up and FIRs registered as we bickered.

The state may have become less generous but partly perhaps because it realises the fissures within. All is not lost, however, as some soothsayers are predicting. It should not be forgotten that the state’s intentions have rarely matched its ability to implement, and also that the state needs the media as much as the media needs the state.

For instance, the expansion of the news channel industry is attributed to the generosity of Pervez Musharraf. And rightly so. He allowed television channels. But his decision was not made in a vacuum. He took over shortly after the Kargil conflict, where one war was fought in the mountains and another on the screens.

With the vast expanse of private television channels in India, the entire society rallied behind its army. Even popular entertainment serials added slogans of support for their soldiers. And on the Pakistani side there was silence — for many reasons including the absence of a private electronic media. How much could PTV do? And even back then, its voice had little credibility. Kargil showed that no state media could match the private one in hyper-nationalism and opinion creation.

Perhaps, this lesson was obvious also to those who ruled. And perhaps even if someone other than Musharraf was at the helm of affairs, news channels would have been allowed. Since then, the private media has played its role — on a number of occasions.

The military operation in Swat is a case in point. Undoubtedly, it was fought by the men in uniform, but the legitimacy of the operation and the support for it was partly due to the coverage. The excesses of the Pakistani Taliban in the valley, the violence, and then the military operation — we saw it all unfold in our living rooms.

Consider the movement to restore the judiciary, which later turned into the movement to dislodge Musharraf — it would not have had the impact it did had it not been for the relentless presence of the television cameras. It was the images of the lawyers and others on the roads that overnight turned the dictator backed by Washington into a liability.

By the time of Benazir Bhutto’s return, Washington was hoping for a ‘liberal’ government led by the PPP-PML-Q, headed by Musharraf as president and a full-time army chief who could focus on the militancy which had reared its head in Fata. Hence, the deal between Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto, which was brokered by Washington and London.

But in a year’s time, Musharraf was gone and there was not a peep out of Western capitals. Musharraf had lost his legitimacy and who needed proof? It was there for all to see.

The point is that a credible media is so much more than an abstract notion for the idealistic. Its credibility helps societies and states equally. And, the noisy press in Pakistan has always convinced many a visitor and commentator that the authoritarian strains in the country do not run as deep as the ones in the Middle East. And this has been true even when the country was under the harshest of regimes.

Pakistan has never been a Myanmar or a Gulf monarchy where newspapers were printed daily but did little reporting. In the land of the pure, the muzzling, when it happened, has never lasted forever.

It will be no different this time around. Curbs and checks cannot go too far. There will be a reversal at some stage — for the credibility of the media, at some stage, metamorphises into the credibility of the state, internationally and domestically. Pakistan and its argumentative citizens cannot be silenced like our Far Eastern friends or our Muslim siblings to the west. The ‘worst of times’ cannot last forever.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, October 23rd, 2018

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