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The gloves are off

August 03, 2019

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IN an interview during his recent, much-hyped trip to Washington, Imran Khan claimed that the media in Pakistan is ‘much freer’ than its UK counterpart.

Really, Mr Khan?

Had this absurd claim been made by a politician who had not travelled much, I would have put it down to sheer ignorance. But our prime minister has squeezed a lot of mileage out of his university days at Oxford, and his years as a professional cricketer in England. He was also married to the prominent London socialite, Jemima Goldsmith, who is now a well-known journalist.

Given this background, Imran Khan should be aware of just how free the British media is. For example, the newly elected prime minister, Boris Johnson, has been called a liar, a cheat and a buffoon by irreverent columnists and editorial writers for years. And these are just the milder epithets. Johnson’s colourful private life is often in the news, and his recent spat with his partner in which neighbours called the police made the headlines.

The Guardian cartoonist, Steve Bell, regularly depicts him as a human backside half-covered with a mop of blond hair. But it could have been worse as Bell’s drawings of David Cameron, the ex-prime minister, show. The Que­en is a regular target for stand-up comics who also mock everybody from politicians to the Pope.

An escalating crackdown on critical comment is under way.

I doubt very much that Imran Khan would tolerate such barbs. Of course, I am not suggesting for a moment that the Pakistani media should resort to such scurrilous comments and images for our prime minister. However, he knows full well that the British media enjoys a degree of freedom that we in Pakistan can only dream of. Perhaps he ought to remember the abuse he deployed against his opponents.

In his long campaign, Khan was helped by a media that boosted his image uncritically. No TV anchor, and few newspaper editors, examined what lay behind the charisma and the bombast. But had either the PPP or the PML-N governments pulled one of his many interviews off the air, he would have gone ballistic, accusing his rivals of censorship and authoritarian practices.

At the time of his months-long Islamabad dharna, TV channels gave the chaotic scenes around Khan’s container 24/7 coverage. Indeed, I recall two TV panellists urging the ‘third umpire’ to raise his finger. To his credit, another panellist, Zahid Hussain, walked off the show, declaring that he was not prepared to listen to such blatant calls for military intervention.

So in a sense, the media has only itself to blame for its present predicament. By providing endless coverage to Khan and his single-item, anti-corruption agenda, our TV channels and newspapers helped catapult him to power, albeit via a highly questionable election. As the pithy Punjabi expression has it: ‘Hore chupo!’, roughly translated as “You asked for it!”

Another issue here is that many media house owners don’t want to annoy powerful politicians, judges and generals. For them, the bottom line is what counts, not abstract ideals like the freedom of speech.

But Khan is not the only politician to benefit from a fawning media that is driven by the search for higher ratings and increased circulation. The reality is that the public prefers flamboyant figures like Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Imran Khan to grey, anonymous politicians.

However, while Trump and Johnson are regularly lambasted on liberal TV channels, in newspapers and in social media, we in Pakistan are witnessing an escalating crackdown on critical comment. Opposition voices are being stifled as interviews with prominent politicians are pulled in mid-sentence. Editors are more careful than ever to avoid giving offence to power centres like the executive, the judiciary and the security establishment.

In a sense, the glo­ves are off, leaving little doubt abo­ut who’s in charge. True, Khan is allergic to criticism, but was tolerance ever part of his CV? Ho­w­ever, given its narrow parliamentary majority, it is doubtful if the PTI government could have made a noisy and exuberant media come to heel so quickly, had it not received open-ended support from the ‘third umpire’.

I’m not sure if the prime minister has studied Pakistan’s chequered political history, but politicians in power have always hated a free media, while they crave one when no longer in office. Although aspirants to power extol the virtues of democratic institutions when they are awaiting their turn, they find these same institutions irksome when they are elected or selected to high office.

Khan is perceived as having the establishment and the judiciary on his side, a luxury neither of his two predecessors enjoyed. Thus his government’s media crackdown continues without check. The electronic media regulator, Pemra, is a creature of the security state, ready to axe any broadcast that might annoy the powerful.

So we go through yet another cycle of repression and censorship that will, hopefully, be followed by resistance and revolt.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, August 3rd, 2019