In the cross hairs again

Updated December 08, 2019


The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

ONCE again as this paper and its team face a sudden spike in the pressure that they have learned to live with for the past three years, the inevitable question is whether the trigger was, as cited, a (factual) headline that was the cause of chagrin to the most powerful in the country.

The headline mentioned the London Bridge terrorist, who killed two people and stabbed several others before being shot dead late last week by the Metropolitan police in London, as being of Pakistani descent. The latter was underscored when the man’s funeral took place in Azad Kashmir.

Though it was difficult to see mischief or conspiracy in the headline, protests were ignited and threats of violence were issued against the paper. The protesters twice laid siege to the media group’s Islamabad offices blocking anybody from entering or leaving the building for several hours.

Eyewitnesses said the crowd mostly comprised what they called the ‘usual suspects’ who are deployed for orchestrated demonstrations. Some among them, who were tactfully asked, had not even read the story. This showed that the anger lay somewhere else, possibly over other reports and statements.

It is mind-boggling why we can’t see media freedom is good for the country and for its ‘image’ that so many seem concerned about. Yes it is. It makes the country look good globally and locally. A free media always reflects well on a society, a country and its system.

Only the very pretentious among the members of the Fourth Estate will believe they cause governments to fall.

Globally, it burnishes the democratic credentials of those at the helm, no matter how they got there. Locally, it provides a steam release valve to the people, surrounded by myriad economic challenges by giving their concerns voice and obviating the need for them to take to the streets.

At the same time, the decision-makers can carry on as before with their agenda. Only the very pretentious among the members of the Fourth Estate will believe they cause governments to fall, policies to be reversed and help the people triumph by ensuring that their will is upheld.

If a free media was indeed such a feared entity and not a mere irritant, governance would improve, governments would be stripped of the corrupt, and the inefficient; mismanagement and nepotism would be a thing of the past. Is it free? The answer is a resounding no.

If the free media was indeed so effective in blocking the ambitions of those whose job is not to rule but to serve and protect, would we have had the number of outright autocratic regimes we have had, and their contemporary form ie the hybrid administration?

Just take the case of the extension of the army chief. The prime minister, being the country’s chief executive, wanted to give him a second tenure and completed the paperwork for it. The Supreme Court found fault with that paperwork.

It gave the government six months during which to move the appropriate legislation through parliament, leaving the incumbent in office for the period — and beyond, when the legislation is approved or, as Minister Fawad Chaudhry hinted, via a Supreme Court review which is also being contemplated.

This newspaper editorially, and some writers/columnists in their submissions, expressed the view that extensions are not good and cited cogent arguments to support that contention. This was a principled position in a debate; not treachery or even disrespect to an individual or institution.

One would have thought it would be clear that since all involved speak in the national interest, albeit from their own perspective, there was no issue and cause for anger or recrimination for the opinions being advanced. Particularly, because everybody believes that in the end the decision will hold.

Therefore, the editorials, the comments and columns that expressed opposition to the extension could not have caused more discomfort than was caused by the apex court through some incisive questions. Asking such questions is healthy.

When society is more at ease with the diversity of opinion, when the realisation has sunk in that the national interest and patriotism are not necessarily represented by one officially sanctioned narrative but by every thinking Pakistani, perhaps some of these questions may be answered.

Or better still, it could lead to somewhat different decision-making. For now, such questions provoke anger at the perceived challenge to authority.

The editor of this newspaper pointed out recently how today the official view conforms to what Dawn has been saying about militancy for years. He was speaking at an award ceremony, where the Committee to Protect Journalists recognised this paper’s commitment to the truth and braving the onslaught that followed the story dubbed ‘Dawn leaks’. Among other recipients of the award are former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and Kathy Gannon, one of the most fearless wire reporters around. One can embrace the inclusion of the paper and editor in this illustrious group.

Or one can sulk and simmer at his words. But in either case the truth will remain. Take for example the Dawn story about how Twitter was being manipulated by organised groups in Pakistan. You can feel anger at the expose but would be naïve to believe it would not have been exposed in any case.

If the media was so potent, murdered Naqibullah Mehsud’s father would not have died waiting for justice; if the media was so effective the mother of Seraiki activist Mustafa Kanju who ‘disappeared’ a year ago would not have passed away with her eyes forlornly open and Mashal’s father not charged with sedition.

If the media was the force of nature it is supposed to be there would be far more facts about the four Baloch women arrested ‘for carrying ammunition’ for the separatists not just their photographs released to the press.

Thus, the choice is simple. Keep the media in the cross hairs and look awful, intolerant and autocratic, particularly internationally. Or let the media have free rein and look great. Democratic and tolerant. The ground reality will remain what it is.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, December 8th, 2019