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The imperilled media

Updated December 22, 2018


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

IN military terminology, a ‘scorched-earth’ policy means the destruction, the burning down of anything that an invading force can put to use — from standing crops to infrastructure such as roads and bridges.

In the Pakistani authorities’ lexicon, it seems that anyone who disagrees with the state-sponsored narrative is likened to an invading force, serving hostile foreign interests.

With ideas being the only weapon in their arsenal, the dissidents need a vehicle to air their views and share their ideas. It appears that the civilian government in power and its powerful backers in the security establishment are now ensuring that those who disagree are denied a platform.

If we are actually surrounded by hostile powers on our borders and face threats from afar too, it is incumbent on us to analyse the policy failures that got us here in the first place.

This doctrine is being relentlessly pursued as if Pakistan’s current civilian leaders have seemingly taken a leaf out of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s media ‘regulation’ policy which has only allowed such media to survive, even thrive, that play ball.

Writing in the Guardian in March 2017, Russia analyst AIexey Kovalev said of the Putin regime: “In their minds, reporters working for state news outlets — which effectively are almost all news outlets in Russia — are public servants first and journalists second (if at all).”

Over here, we are not very far from that point. In fact, it’s worse, as here such expectations are extended to journalists working in the private sector. We are constantly told not just by officials but also their surrogates in their ‘think tanks’ how to report ‘positively’.

Of course, such enforced ‘positivity’ leaves no room for you and I to truly believe that something may actually be against the national interest and vocally oppose it because our conscience so dictates. Your definition of national interest and mine amounts to nought.

Just flip TV channels to assess what range of opinions and ideas are being discussed each evening, across dozens of channels and you will soon be able to see that the tightly set parameters start to rise out of the discussions like a concrete boundary wall. No transgressions are possible.

Some political parties, though having representation in parliament and, even more significantly, enjoying popular support among sizeable segments of the population, do not exist in (and for) the media, and their leaders’ names are only fit for mention on social media.

One could argue that sections of the media, being heavily reliant on government advertising, are responsible somewhat for this state of affairs. But then, the alleged interference of security services in the distribution of TV channels on cable and newspapers through hawkers have also curtailed their reach and affected the commercial advertising market.

Coupled with a dip in economic growth, this has led to a dire crisis in many independent media houses with some 1,000 workers, including journalists, losing their jobs since the PTI came to power; a TV channel and some newspapers have shut down, others are facing closure and brutal cost-cutting is taking place across the industry.

Even well-reputed media houses known for paying their staff on the dot and of pretty much guaranteeing the continuing employment of journalists on their payroll are now fighting a desperate battle for survival — survival that may not be possible in the circumstances.

The official unhappiness with dissent anywhere including social media is evident in the extraordinarily large number of requests being made, for example, to Twitter, to close down accounts because the holders are ‘in violation of Pakistani laws, rules and regulations’.

A close examination of the content, the tweets, of many of these accounts makes it abundantly clear that they are not espousing intolerance, hatred or violence but merely expressing concern at what they see as a violation of the constitutional provisions and calling for civilian supremacy. It is an irony then that calls for adherence to the letter and spirit of the Constitution, upholding civilian supremacy and free speech, can be deemed a violation of Pakistani law. Such are the times we have fallen on.

I, for one, find government policy and the choke-hold applied by its backers, who may find the Russian, Chinese and the Saudi and, yes, let’s not forget ‘democratic’ like us, Turkey’s way of ‘regulating’ media attractive, pointless; in fact counterproductive.

Let me elaborate. Our people have tasted freedom, and as the voting patterns tell us the country is far from unanimous in backing the party in power. A free media serves as a steam-release valve for those who are feeling disempowered now. If a uni-narrative culture is shoved down our throats via a tightly regulated media, made even more vulnerable by falling revenues due to the economic downturn, it will work but only for a while. Most pressure cookers need to release steam or there is a serious risk of explosion.

At many crucial junctures in the past; grave national debacles happened because the media was muzzled and hence unable to ring the alarm. Pakistan’s long-term interest and the well-being of its people can only be best served via debating the pros and cons of all vital policies.

If this does not happen, or is not allowed, we can sleepwalk from one nightmare to another. Need I count and recall each time we have done exactly that in our short but eventful history? If we are actually surrounded by hostile powers on our borders and face threats from afar too, it is incumbent on us to analyse the policy failures that got us here in the first place.

Open debate has better chances of leading to formulation of policies with a genuine buy-in across the length and breadth of the country. To me, that would be far more preferable and lasting than any contrived, enforced positive outlook that fumbles and fails at the first reality check.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, December 22nd, 2018