Freedoms that are no more

Updated 23 Aug 2019


The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

AMONG all the responsible people the Sharif household is crowded with, the task recently fell upon Capt Safdar to come up with a declaration regarding the current state of the media. The gentleman has of late been fighting his war in the shadows, but when the other day he was given an opportunity to enjoy a bit of instant fame, he turned it down by refusing to speak into the microphone that was thrust into his face.

It was a reporter of a television channel on his daily routine of scouting for news who had run into the PML-N leader. The retired captain responded by loudly pronouncing how the media did not have the guts to run what he had on his mind — so there was no point in him wasting his words. And as an afterthought probably meant to compensate for the rather abrupt tone in which he had reacted, Capt Safdar told the insistent journalist that once things got better, he would visit the studios of the channel to give an interview.

The footage was run on television and then on social media, proving the old saying that a sufficiently probing journalist will never return empty-handed. Also, the exchange highlighted how life had changed for some of the privileged over the last few months, or maybe, the last couple of years.

Not too long ago, reporters in Lahore were judged by their ability to be able to get a quote — yes, a single coveted quote — from any member of the Sharif clan. Some of them would camp permanently outside the Jati Umra estate hoping to get a fleeting sentence from anyone connected closely to the dynasty. The contrast is for everyone to see amid reports that there’s some kind of policy in place at media houses which bars any undue coverage of the former ruling family.

The cries of anguish about censorship are accompanied by the taking away from journalists a lifestyle they were just getting used to.

Indeed, according to one persistent line in Lahore, a Capt Safdar refusing to comment was always more likely to make it to the screen rather than one speaking his mind about the situation he found himself in. Thus he is supposed to have done his job well here, as did the channel which managed to add another bit to all that has been said about the lack of freedoms for the media under the present PTI government.

This is a tough situation for the opposition politicians, as well as for the media, going by all the evidence that has been piling up against the current setup in power over its obvious attempts at controlling the media. And cast as a central character in the equation is the most basic tool in the media machinery — the reporter, like the one who dared chase Capt Safdar for a statement.

It is not in any way a loaded statement, but like Capt Safdar, the journalist has fallen on bad days. He is faced with the greatest odds. Much has been said about the freedoms various rulers did or did not allow the media. On the other hand, the media has a life and system of its own that has undergone changes influenced by so many factors including liberty and other sustenance provided though not by the state or government.

There were changes during which your average, non-privileged long-undervalued journalist was pulled out of dimly lit newsrooms where ideas of revolutions once thrived. Not incomparable in any way to other professionals, and in no way exceeding their value, journalists were given a taste of the materials of the real world, the most sought after among them going on to get luxury packages that appeared to be a distant dream on the other side of Gen Pervez Musharraf only a few years ago.

Not only was the media a much better paymaster as compared to the past, the mushrooming of channels and the increase in the number of newspapers were factors in the weakening of old-style, sometimes unnecessarily stringent, controls over what reached the public. This also contributed to the overall impression about an ‘emancipated and empowered’ media run not by the dreamers and cynics of the past but by a generation of new professionals who had been mainstreamed by the sheer weight of their new pragmatic pay packages. And now, when these cries of anguish about the withdrawal of media freedoms and increasing censorship are heard louder and louder, they are, sadly, accompanied by the brutal taking away from so many journalists a life and lifestyle that they were just getting used to.

It was difficult to recognise the voice behind the microphone that approached Capt Safdar. But it could well have belonged to any of the young men who recently suffered a huge cut in their salary on account of the crisis the media is in the middle of right now. A hefty, crippling decrease in monthly pay, plus the denial of end-of-service perks, all done via a simple matter-of-fact letter that everyone had been dreading for a while now.

If you know a few journalists in Lahore or any other Pakistani town, you would be familiar with these stories — stories where journalists plead with anyone who they come across for work; stories where seemingly well-established journalists do not celebrate Eid for reasons that do not need an explanation; stories whose living, breathing characters are slowly moving away from a life not just of comfort but of socialising since it costs.

Their numbers are steadily on the rise and the chorus of their complaints is picking up, looking for some kind of catharsis that is not to be found easily. The places famous for harbouring journalists, press clubs et al, are crowded with those who have been forced to work for months without pay, at salaries drastically reduced or worse, and those who have been sacked. Depleted and let down, these are the soldiers who must provide the vanguard for any march towards ensuring media freedoms. There is a divide. Already, there are voices saying, ‘we will fight for your freedoms if you fight for our right to a living’.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, August 23rd, 2019