Inverted priority for media

September 26, 2019

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I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

THE government has wrongly been advised about the creation of special courts to try media owners and journalists because, firstly, no rational justification for the move has been offered and, secondly, neither the media community nor democratic defenders of freedom of expression are likely to allow the media’s strangulation.

Nobody has bought the official plea that special courts will promote the media community’s interests, because the government has never been suspected of entertaining such pious thoughts. Besides, all authors of media curbs in Pakistan, from the Ayub and Ziaul Haq regimes to the PML-N government (2013-2018), prefaced their draconian measures with outpourings of concern for the media’s well-being.

The first argument against the media tribunals is that they are not needed. Institutions capable of dealing with any possible media offences are already in existence.

The announcement about media tribunals followed the prime minister’s complaint that certain media outlets had made libellous attacks on government figures. That alone cannot justify the creation of special courts for the media. Anyone committing libel can be held accountable under the law of defamation. Establishing special tribunals for the media while trying all others accused of libel in normal courts will create a discriminatory system.

Nobody has bought the official plea that special courts will promote the media community’s interests.

The government spokesperson has made some unsubstantiated complaints against Pemra and the Press Council. Evidence is available to show that the government has been thinking of doing away with Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (and the Press Council of Pakistan) for many months, that is, since much before some scurrilous attacks on members of government were alleged. The causes of the government’s dissatisfaction with Pemra are not known while instances of this institution’s high-handedness in carrying out the government’s wishes are well-known.

Indeed, the government was so happy with Pemra that it was until recently trying to bring the entire media under a Pemra-like authority. The government has not released any indictment of the Press Council either, and its extinction will be widely regretted as it represents the fruit of the media community’s decades-long struggle to win acceptance of the principle that the media should be represented on any forum created for dealing with complaints against it.

The present move should therefore be viewed as a continuation of the effort begun in 2017 when the government sent the draft of a bill to create a ‘Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority’ to manage and control the print, electronic and digital media. Work on this scheme continued during the caretaker regime of 2018, and the outlines of a regime that would, among other things, make newspapers subject to a one-sided licensing system was circulated among a few stakeholders. If implemented, that scheme will completely stifle the media and deprive it of rights acknowledged for more than a century.

The media community’s angry reaction to the nakedly sinister move has been clear on basic issues. The Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors has called for a joint struggle by media organisations against government’s intention to introduce dictatorial and black laws. The All Pakistan Newspapers Society has described the special courts as a means of “intimidating and strangulating the media; they are not only unconstitutional but also contrary to the spirit of democracy. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists too has rejected the move for special media courts, and its stand has been endorsed by the International Federation of Journalists. Several political leaders and human rights defenders have backed the media’s rejection of the government plan. It can fairly be asserted that an overwhelming majority of stakeholders has denounced the proposal to instal media courts.

Curiously enough, the government is ignoring the fact that apart from disseminating information, knowledge and enlightenment, the media is also one of the country’s leading industries and is fighting for survival. Several publications have been discontinued, hundreds of journalists have been made jobless and many more have had their wages slashed. At a time when the government is offering relief and incentives to industries it has not found even a word of sympathy for the media. Nor has it uttered a single word of concern for the media community that includes hundreds of thousands of workers and their dependents.

No government in Pakistan was ever friendly towards the media but all governments treated it as a necessary evil. They tried many tactics to control the media but they accepted the need for a stable press and mature electronic channels. The first thing the present government did was to adopt an advertisement policy that was extremely hostile to the media. Now it seems the media is dealt with as an unnecessary evil, and that its demise will not be unwelcome to the establishment, especially in view of the rise of an alternative official media.

One of the decisive arguments against the proposed media tribunals is that apart from what may happen to the people hauled up before them, their very existence will deepen the environment of fear in which the media community is already working. Journalists will become more and more timid and increasingly afraid of questioning official narratives, however absurd or dangerous they might be.

The choice of inverted priorities for the media that is denying the state’s benevolence and concentrating on the system’s punitive potential has had extremely costly precedents in Pakistan’s history. Gen Zia did great injustice to Islam by enforcing religious punishments before its benevolent features could be enjoyed by the people. Another choice of inverted priorities was the dispatch of troops to control the tribal population before giving them a taste of the state’s benign functions.

Like the earlier inverted priorities, the attempt to muzzle the media too is bound to fail. Not because of the media’s opposition alone, nor because states all over the world are disregarding public opinion, but because the official policy is inherently incompatible with the spirit of the age. The only issue is the price the people will have to pay for protection against the truth.

Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2019