AUSTRALIAN newspapers on Monday made a powerful statement against state censorship. In a coordinated campaign, they published identical, redacted front pages accompanied by a question: “When government keeps the truth from you, what are they covering?” The media industry in that country has been in an uproar since several months over raids by police on a journalist’s residence and the headquarters of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to recover leaked documents that had provided material for an exposé published in 2018. The story blew the lid off plans for an Australian intelligence agency to be given unprecedented powers to spy on the country’s citizens, and was deeply embarrassing for the government. The development comes amid a climate of increasing restrictions on the media’s right to access information, particularly on grounds of national security.
This is a growing trend across the globe, with governments treating freedom of speech and the right to information as a privilege they bestow on their citizens. The pretext of ‘national security’ in a post-9/11 world is particularly useful, being an amorphous concept that can be made to fit any inconvenient truth and throttle independent reportage. This is naturally par for the course in countries with dictatorial regimes where the leadership is unaccountable and whose workings are closed to media scrutiny. Worryingly, however, many democratic governments are also weakening the fourth pillar of the state, with populists such as President Trump attempting to erode the credibility of news outlets critical of their policies, while overtly supporting those that give them more favourable coverage. That has further emboldened leaders elsewhere. In India, the illegal media blackout in held Kashmir after the region was stripped of its autonomy has been largely successful in stifling the voices of people suffering under the Modi government’s tyranny. The Australian newspapers’ shock tactic on Monday is familiar to many senior journalists in Pakistan who have worked under Gen Zia’s military dictatorship. During that regime, in a pointed rebuke against restrictions on the press, newspapers began to leave blank spaces where official censors had excised entire reports or certain lines in the text. The media in Pakistan is once again in the grip of censorship from official quarters, though this time it leaves behind no ‘press advice’ as evidence of its intolerance for dissenting views. Unfortunately, however, also missing now is the unity among media players that can make for a collective resistance against the state’s high-handedness.
Published in Dawn, October 23rd, 2019