THERE is little doubt that the media in Pakistan is besieged today as it is getting battered by different elements that range from the authorities to the economy.
Supreme Court Justice Faez Isa is not known to mince his words on transgressions of the rule of law and the Constitution. He remarked during a hearing on Thursday that there appeared to be a move to silence the media.
He lamented that “we are now living in a controlled media state” where all points of view, other than the one that powerful elements of the power structure are comfortable with, were not welcomed.
The judge asked if the country’s future was being determined by parliament or, what he called, insidious forces. Justice Faez Isa’s remarks came during the hearing of a suo motu case in the Supreme Court on the Faizabad dharna during the final days of the last government.
The two-member bench, headed by Justice Mushir Alam, expressed shock and dismay that TV news channels were taken off air on someone’s orders by cable operators, and took to task the regulator Pemra for not lifting a finger to ensure the free distribution of news channels on cable networks.
The bench was also displeased by the role of the ISI and demanded that the court be briefed about the exact mandate and role of the all-powerful security service. The court came down hard on the attorney general of Pakistan for not appearing before the court in this matter of import, despite a clear commitment.
Many of us know that while the court is a robust backer of freedoms, there are powerful forces determined to make Pakistan a ‘uni-narrative’ state.
All who believe in the freedom of the media would take heart from the remarks of the honourable court. Still, many of us would also know that while the court will be a robust backer of freedoms, there are very powerful forces determined to make Pakistan a ‘uni-narrative’ state.
It is not a very well-kept secret how the media was beaten into submission in the run-up to the elections by agencies, and told in no uncertain terms what was acceptable and what was not. Notwithstanding the odd case of heroic defiance, much of the media content reflected the self-censorship that was enforced on the fourth estate.
Of course, the PTI strategy to blame the slowdown of the economy mostly on the policies of its predecessors — and not even a bit on its own scare-mongering tactics — may have been designed to demonise the PML-N, but it began to cut both ways.
As concerns mounted about the state of the economy, it has also bitten the media, with commercial advertisers holding back their ad spends. This, coupled with the present setup’s refusal to honour the payment for ads the last government placed in the media but did not pay for, has exacerbated the crisis.
Even then, it would be outright dishonest to say that cutbacks and job losses in the media are due to a legitimate market-based financial crunch alone. Many of the senior figures who have lost their jobs/ programmes, for example in TV channels, have often expressed their support for civilian supremacy.
There is no denying that there is a legitimate financial squeeze too, but in many of the decisions it seems more factors are at play than what Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry chooses solely to blame on the ‘financial crunch’.
It does not take rocket science to ascertain the actual situation. Look at the legislative record of the PTI, and the party’s performance in its first 100 days in power, and you will see very few draft laws and regulations presented to parliament or even placed in the public domain for discussion.
But one of the first drafts prepared (almost as if it was handed over to the PTI on assuming office) and floated with the pledge of taking all stakeholders on board was the draft law to club together all media regulatory bodies into one.
The move received a negative reaction from the stakeholders in media, especially working journalists and editors who have viewed it as an insidious attempt to shackle the media via stealth in the shape of regulatory reform.
More recent statements by the information minister, who is seen as close to both the prime minister and other powerful state institutions, have been about also tightening the screws on social media which, after large sections of the traditional media were muzzled, had become a source of information for the public.
As a social media user, I would be the last person to say that the platforms do not lay themselves open to exploitation by purveyors of manufactured news and even propaganda, but this is definitely not to say that such people have an overwhelming presence on it. Far from it.
Even where there is such content, there are ways and means to rubbish it and spell out what the facts are. But it is clear that such use does not scare the authorities.
What unnerves them, it appears, is the use of social media — as, for instance, in the aftermath of Naqibullah Mehsud’s extrajudicial murder and the initial botched investigation which created a rights movement largely via social media. Even then, why the fear? It is not as if justice has been meted out to the perpetrators seen as assets by the state.
At this stage, the PTI might be supporting the muzzling of the media to remain on the ‘same page’ with powerful state institutions, but if Prime Minister Imran Khan desires to drive meaningful change he will need more authority than, say, Shaukat Aziz had while in office. Here the media will prove a solid ally in the long run. One really hopes and wishes he has the vision to see that.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, November 24th, 2018