PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan during his visit to the US made certain assertions about press freedom in Pakistan that are difficult to square with the facts.

During his joint press conference with President Donald Trump, Mr Khan declared: “To say there are curbs on Pakistani press is a joke.”

Later, in an interview with a US think tank, he went so far as to say that the media in Pakistan is freer than that in Britain, adding “it is not just free but it is out of control”.

On Wednesday, however, even before Mr Khan arrived back home, it was revealed in Karachi that the government is planning to set up media courts, ostensibly to resolve journalists’ grievances.

A look at how the ‘free’ media in Pakistan has fared within the space of this month alone highlights the gulf between the government’s words and its actions.

Former president Asif Zardari’s interview was pulled a few minutes into transmission; 21 TV channels were sent show-cause notices for airing Maryam Nawaz’s live press conference; three channels were taken off air without assigning any reason; another channel, a few hours before the prime minister arrived in the US, was either forced off the air or had its channel number changed in many parts of the country.

These are but the most egregious examples of what has become a massive exercise in micromanaging day-to-day news coverage.

The unrelenting assault on editorial independence includes orders — sometimes in the guise of ‘advice’ — to give a particular spin to news reports, drop certain stories and even omit specific quotes by elected individuals.

Granted, all censorship does not emanate from official quarters.

In many instances, journalists themselves ‘sanitise’ their work, but that only goes to show how well the tactics of media repression are working.

In such a situation, where the journalist community’s first and foremost grievance is a lack of freedom, media courts signify a step towards institutionalised government regulation — official censorship — so that the state’s stranglehold on the media will be complete.

No democracy can thrive without a free press, and a government secure in its mandate to rule, must be open to fair comment.

Certainly there are instances where the media has been cavalier with the facts and intemperate in tone, but there are legal remedies to counter libellous allegations, such as the defamation law.

In its defence though, the Pakistani media does maintain a modicum of respect towards political leaders.

Compare that with the British press — less free than ours, according to Mr Khan — which has used epithets like ‘clown’ to describe the UK’s newly elected prime minister.

In any case, all political parties have been at the receiving end of the Pakistani media’s shortcomings, not the PTI alone.

In fact, for the wall-to-wall coverage of its 2014 dharna, the PTI has much to thank the far freer press of the time.

Published in Dawn, July 26th, 2019

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