Shooting the messenger

Updated February 18, 2020

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TO shoot the messenger is the go-to tactic for authoritarian leaders; facts are anathema if inconsistent with the airbrushed version of reality they choose to project. When the government demonises the media as the ‘enemy’, it creates a buffer against the public being informed of inconvenient truths and against poor governance or corruption being exposed.

Unfortunately, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s diatribes against the press have become increasingly frequent and hostile. On Saturday, during a chat with journalists, he claimed he had endured “media attacks” over the past two years, singling out the Dawn and Jang media houses as having, in his words, published “false stories” against him and his government.

In the same breath, he rightly described the media as “an important pillar of democracy” — which makes his discrediting of the press all the more ironic. Presumably, in the prime minister’s eyes, only a media uncritical of his government’s performance is a pillar of democracy; only a media that fawns over him, as it did during his long dharna in 2014, is tolerable. Now in the ‘hot seat’ himself as the country’s chief executive, Mr Khan — his well-documented aversion to criticism on full display — has even advised the people to refrain from watching TV talk shows and reading newspapers.

Democratic dispensations do not have the luxury of a victim narrative; they must defend their performance before the public on the basis of facts. However, Mr Khan demonstrates a woeful lack of understanding of the media’s function as a conduit of information — whether favourable or otherwise to the government of the day — and, if it acquits itself well, as a watchdog for the public interest.

Certainly, it is possible that inaccuracies may have crept into some coverage, and a few newspaper columns may not have been to the government’s liking. But to accuse the media of having some ‘agenda’ against it is ridiculous and smacks of rising frustration in PTI ranks. The government should not hide behind wild accusations, such as those by Mr Khan’s media aide that 20 “baseless news” had appeared in Dawn and Jang in the recent past.

Which stories were these? The publications concerned have a right to know and defend themselves.

The state’s desire to bring the media to heel is most clearly manifested in its arbitrary, unacceptable and illegal strategy since last December of denying government ads — as have done some previous administrations — to certain outlets that refuse to be dictated to. While the approach is being tacitly applied at the federal level, and KP and Punjab too have resorted to unannounced bans, there is no doubt the orders have come from the very top. The prime minister must rethink his short-sighted approach, immediately lift the ban and engage with media leaders. Power is ephemeral, and Mr Khan should consider that one day he may once again need a free press.

Published in Dawn, February 18th, 2020