Assault on the media

Published March 15, 2020
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

WITH coronavirus disrupting routine lives, economies and endangering large swaths of the world’s population, nowhere is it business as usual except in our beloved land.

The arrest of Jang-Geo chief editor Mir Shakilur Rehman and the reaction of the media freedoms and human rights organisation in Pakistan as well as around the globe against the move made clear they have serious doubts that the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) acted in good faith.

In a leader in yesterday’s edition, voicing its concern, this newspaper rightly pointed out the arrest “highlighted the anti-graft watchdog’s high-handedness and propensity to target critics … In a move that bears all the telltale signs of a witch-hunt, the bureau called Mr Rehman to appear before it and then proceeded to arrest him for allegedly ­acquiring land through illegal means”.

These suspicions were further fuelled when a photograph of the media mogul appeared first on one of his TV channel’s main rival channels and then adorned the social media, which shows him standing behind bars in a tiny, cramped cell. This was some twisted mind’s attempt to humiliate him.

Had the arrest, following NAB’s interest in a 34-year-old transaction, happened in isolation, one would have found plausible the contention of the special assistant to the prime minister on information and broadcasting that this development had nothing to do with the government.

The arrest comes after months and months of targeting media groups that are seen as reluctant to toe the line.

Things are never that simple in Pakistan. The arrest comes after months and months of targeting media groups that are seen as reluctant to toe the line of the present hybrid dispensation and concerted attempts have been made to damage or destroy them.

Many readers of this newspaper would know well how for long periods its home delivery was patchy (though other papers were delivered to their homes) or none at all in some areas. Any ­discerning reader would also have noticed how ­government advertisements have more or less ­disappeared from Dawn media group platforms.

Contrary to the belief of some cabinet members and many vociferous regime supporters, these advertisements are not given out as largesse to favourites whimsically. In fact, they are placed for public information as per a formula depending on the circulation of a newspaper or the viewers of TV channels and the target audience.

Also, this is not ‘government charity’ as the advertisements targeting public awareness of an issue come out of budgets funded by the taxpayer. Not just this. I have had it on very good authority that even private advertising agencies have been threatened by security services and told not to place even private-sector ads in certain media groups.

As for blocking the distribution of newspapers, physical threats and interventions against the distributors and hawkers have been made. For ‘errant’ TV channels, calls are received by cable operators to either block them totally or keep moving them around so that even dedicated viewers are unable to watch their chosen channels in their usual slot.

The whole purpose of doing this is to kill off the viewership/readership at the same time as starving the media organisations of advertisements and the revenue these bring in. You can guess how uphill the struggle for media organisations pursuing an independent editorial policy is.

Of course, this is not to acknowledge that the contracting economy has also taken its toll. And now the global health emergency will also leave the ‘out of favour’ sections of the media further debilitated as even international organisations/corporations ads will slow down too as the global economic growth takes a massive hit.

At a time when a pandemic of the kind the world has not seen in a century is threatening us, our priorities still seem to be petty vendettas. The decision to arrest the media mogul and the ‘leaking’ of his photo — he could only have been photographed by a NAB official — speaks volumes for the kind of thinking guiding policy in place.

In a twist of irony, the NAB chairman has now tasked the Punjab head of his bureau to investigate how the photo was leaked when the leak happened on his own watch. The NAB chairman and his team should have been wary of such tactics.

I say this because the chairman himself has been severely compromised by a leaked video where he allegedly had an inappropriate conversation with a woman under probe by his bureau. Interestingly, the video first appeared on a channel owned by a man who was at the time a special assistant to the prime minister. And it appeared against the backdrop of an interview the NAB chairman first gave, and subsequently denied, to a TV anchor-cum-newspaper columnist where he was reported to have said he was getting ready to go after senior figures in the PTI government and his actions may have dire ­consequences for the longevity of the government.

On trips abroad from Davos to DC, whenever Prime Minister Imran Khan is asked about curbs on the media, he has claimed that Pakistani media has more freedom than the British media and cites his own experience of living in the UK for 18 years.

With utmost respect, I will say to the prime minister: that is not true. Not at all in fact. Pakistani media is only free to toe the line of the national security state and his government. Any independent thought or reporting is scoffed at and triggers attempts to choke the life out of it.

Enlightened national interest debate is contemptuously shunned; ostrich-like behaviour embraced. This is our reality today.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, March 15th, 2020

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