Increasing curbs

October 21, 2019


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

OWN goal. That’s how many have described our immigration authorities’ decision to refuse entry to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) Steven Butler when he arrived in Lahore last week en route to a human rights conference.

Butler’s expulsion was the dark cloud that instantly overshadowed the British royals’ recent trip to Pakistan. That visit was a soft-image coup, splashing the vibrant colours of Chitral and the grandeur of Badshahi Mosque across the global stage. But it is long forgotten, replaced by headlines about Pakistan’s disdain for free expression and growing authoritarian tendencies. 

The CPJ termed Butler’s experience a “slap in the face” for those who care about press freedom in Pakistan. What could express more flagrant disregard for free expression than preventing a representative of the CPJ — which last year described our media as being “under siege” — from debating the issue at a conference? It’s the bureaucratic equivalent of the government laughing at journalists’ protestations against censorship. 

This comes as no surprise to the industry. The PTI government has made its stance on journalism clear: the media is meant to be a mouthpiece, toeing the official line and serving as a public relations agency for (deep) state policies.

The media is meant to be a mouthpiece, toeing the official line.

While previous governments aimed to keep some issues out of the news through targeted censoring or silencing, it appears that this government (and its powerful backers) are out to dismantle the journalistic profession. This is apparent through online harassment campaigns such as the #Journalism­NotAgenda and #ArrestAntiPakJournalist hashtags on social media, and more insidious means such as withholding government advertising expenditure and causing financial crises at media houses.

Journalists have already argued for the democratic necessity of a free press until they’re hoarse (or trolled, or blocked from the airwaves, or bankrupted, or intimidated, or disappeared, or murdered). Since those appeals have fallen on deaf ears, perhaps another tack is required.

The government should realise that the success of its own policies largely depend on the presence of a free press. If your democratic credentials are doubtful, then an anti-corruption drive is exposed as political persecution rather than an overdue accountability initiative.

A credible, independent press can also be a government’s best ally when it comes to championing policy positions in an international context. Even while muzzling the media, the PTI government championed access by journalists to the Kashmir Valley, recognising it as the only means to informing the world about the Kashmiris’ plight and compelling international action.

When in the future Pakistan wants to make arguments to its own people and the world — whether about the Indus Water Treaty, the treatment of Pakistani diaspora labour, proliferation, etc. — it will need the press on its side (or at least amenable to giving it a fair hearing). And the power of the media’s view in such cases is entirely contingent on perceptions of its independence. 

Some recent developments underscore the extent of the censorship crisis. The first is the growing consensus within the media industry to unite against the pressures. Earlier this month, press associations, media owners and journalists agreed to push back against media tribunals. This show of unity is a welcome change in a landscape where the government has pit one media house against the other.

This unity must extend to the media’s documentation of the extent of censorship. Some channels wisely announced last week that they were suspending coverage of Fazlur Rehman’s press conference on Pemra’s directions. This is the televised equivalent of blacked-out column inches, which I believe should also make a comeback. Cen­sorship so far has been so cunningly imposed — through WhatsApp messages, withheld funding, litigation and intimidation — that even Pakistan’s educated middle class and business elite are oblivious to its extent. This will only change if the industry agrees to be transparent about how much information it is denying the public.

The Senate human rights’ committee’s investigation to pinpoint responsibility for media censorship will complement any industry action. It is unclear how much the committee aims to achieve, since it’s an open secret where the directives are issued from.

FIA involvement in the investigation to map how censorship orders are received and implemented could confirm what is already whispered in newsrooms across the country, thereby underlining the extent of censorship and helping to restore the media’s credibility. This would be unprecedented, and confirmation of the infrastructure of media censorship in Pakistan would make it easier to fight. 

And, much like Butler’s denied entry, any attempt to thwart the Senate committee would tell us all we need to know about how little we are being told.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, October 21st, 2019