‘Out, damn’d spot! Out’

Updated July 30, 2019

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

‘DAAGH toh achay hotay hain’ is a detergent campaign that has proved to be regionally successful. According to experts, its success lay in its unique take on the idea of cleanliness. While competitors played up the importance to stay clean, daagh toh achay hotay hain offered the idea that dirt and stains were not a problem as they were easy to get rid of.

In politics, however, stains are not as easy to get rid of as they are in ads. But Imran Khan and his government do not seem to realise this. The party is quickly acquiring one stain after another — the latest being the tarnishing of their image vis-à-vis press freedom which will not be easy to remove in the long run.

The issue has blown up to the extent that it has now turned into the one embarrassing question the government cannot provide adequate answers to, especially internationally. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi faced it during his appearance at a conference on the media recently, while Imran Khan was asked about it more than once during his trip to the United States. It can only be hoped that it cost him at least one sleepless night as it was the one answer of his which was judged to be far from satisfactory by many of the observers who otherwise praised his visit to Washington.

Read more: 11 things that wouldn't have happened without press freedom

Why has press freedom become such an issue?

The red lines seem to be increasing with frequency — and the obvious use of ‘mute’ during talk shows is a clear indication. But the issue gained intensity after interviews of Asif Ali Zardari and Maryam Nawaz were pulled off air within minutes of the programme beginning. Then came the news of the latter being banned from air altogether. And the government appeared to be the culprit.

The red lines seem to be increasing with frequency; the obvious use of ‘mute’ during talk shows is a clear indication.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, it also became obvious that there were worried voices within the ruling party and the cabinet itself. Voices who, for various reasons, engaged more directly with journalists and were faced more frequently with the questions Khan and Qureshi were asked on their trips abroad. And by Khan’s return from the US, the issue had been raised in the cabinet meeting and other internal forums.

More than one PTI-wallah has now tried to reassure those watching that Khan has been convinced to rethink his media strategy (though exactly what this entails and how the restrictions will be eased remains unclear). But partly the scepticism exists because the issue is far more complex than either the PTI’s critics make it out to be, or those promising us another U-turn realise.

First, the curbs on the media began some time ago — before the PTI took power and long before the Pakhtun movement or the general election. The first such efforts were made by Gen Musharraf — unsuccessfully — in 2007 but it did indicate the state’s uneasy acceptance of an unbridled press. And we soon put the failure behind us. But since then, methods have been honed and perfected by most political players on the scene.

It is hard to pinpoint a date because the troubling first steps were not contested. In fact, they were widely supported. As a result, few paid attention to the precedents being set.

Also read: Without press freedom, the truth disappears

Did it begin with the ban on Altaf Hussain, or did it begin with his speeches being telecast live by all and sundry? Or was it when channels were taken off air by Pemra as a ‘regulatory’ measure? It happened with both Geo and ARY in 2014, a year before a court order imposed a ban on Hussain. Since then, it has been a slippery slope — and no one (including the journalists themselves) batted an eyelid when news came of the temporary suspension of yet another channel. The ‘new norm’ had been established. And this happened at a time the PML-N was in power, as it was when it bulldozed the cybercrime law through the National Assembly.

Pemra has continued with its regulatory methods through advisories, while instructions have become routine. (One can only hope there is a Zamir Niazi, quietly recording the instructions coming through daily.)

What makes the issue particularly complex is that it is hard to tell who is eventually responsible for these decisions which are being passed on.

The PTI is the one getting the flak partly because of its own statements and behaviour; such as when some of its own justify the ban on the coverage of ‘convicted’ political leaders. But it also ends up with the blame because it is in power as the PML-N was when suspension of channels became an acceptable manner in which to sanction news channels.

(An unlikely consequence of these curbs has been that the press has stopped introspecting, which is unfortunate, but that debate is a matter for another day. However, it is essential that any discussion on the issue include a debate on our editorial standards as well as the reasons why it is so easy to impose curbs.)

But what the PTI, in its inexperience, does not realise is that the stain it has acquired as a party opposed to press freedom will not be as easy to clean, as detergent ads promise. It will stick — for a long time, long after the party has repented its mistake. The PML-N has never been able to rid itself of the stigma of storming the Supreme Court; the PPP these days is trying in vain to explain away its decision to vote for Sadiq Sanjrani and its volte-face.

Press freedom can become a similar issue for the PTI. Indeed, more than the accountability campaign it will prove to be the daagh, or stain, that the party will find hard to wash away. Despite the heavy-handedness against the opposition, corruption is an issue which resonates to some extent at home and abroad and will find fewer critics in the West which has always been uneasy about such allegations. But press curbs are not accepted this easily. The trip to the US illustrated this.

Is the party prepared for this?

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, July 30th, 2019