Being a journalist myself, with a career spanning almost a decade in the field, I have been rattling my brain about the books I have read about my own field in a fast-changing landscape. I’m embarrassed to disclose that my knowledge about my own field is limited, and so I’ve started picking up books on the subject from bookstores. One recently published book I got my hands on is From Terrorism to Television: Dynamics of Media, State and Society in Pakistan, co-edited by the erudite writers and academics Qaisar Abbas and Farooq Sulehria.

I have always had immense respect for their great contributions, which is why I was attracted to the book through their names. Although journalism is a sombre topic, their writings are such that a reader is unable to put the book down. From Terrorism to Television delves deeply into the issues of “media, state and democracy in Pakistan” and, with contributions from scholars and journalists from various cities of Pakistan, it provides readers an overt opportunity to stay abreast of the changing landscape of media in various parts of the country through different aspects.

It is a matter of pride for journalists that Abbas and Sulerhia have dedicated their book to four brave Pakistani journalists — Masoodullah Khan, Nasir Zaidi, Khawar Naeem Hashmi and Iqbal Jafferi — who were sentenced to flogging for protesting against media restrictions during the dictatorial days of Gen Ziaul Haq.

Speaking historically and bluntly, the press has been in chains from day one in the country. Our priorities, as usual, bear this out; from day one, whether in a civilian or martial government, the aim has been to curb the freedoms of the press, religious minorities and other vulnerable groups in the country. Journalists, in particular, have been punished for reaching for the truth. At the time of independence, like others institutions, the media was in a nascent form, and the powers-that-be continued to strangulate and suffocate it from the very beginning, as well as pushing journalists to the wall. For instance, in his seminal work on censorship in the country, The Press in Chains, veteran journalist and author Zamir Niazi documents numerous instances of journalists being arrested, fines imposed on newspapers, and publications that deviated from the official standpoint of the ruling Muslim League being temporarily or permanently banned. According to Niazi, 50 publications were given warnings and 32 were asked for security deposits in only one year, 1952-53.

But instead of silencing the media industry, it gave the defenders of press freedom all the more reason to push back. Oppression always gives birth to resistance and the defenders of press freedom have been resisting for the last seven decades. Had they given up, we would not have the little media freedom we do have in the country to speak truth to power.

A critical, informative and argumentative collection of essays on the changing face of media in Pakistan

In the first chapter, titled ‘Walking in Circles: Democracy, State and Freedom of Expression in Pakistan’, Abbas and Sulehria comprehensively discuss the evolution of the media in the country’s suffocating and challenging environment. Whatever image journalists have in their mind about the state of press freedom is more or less represented exactly in this chapter, and it is a scary image. The editors mince no words as they lay down exactly how challenging the situation is. For instance, they rightly argue that “the state is not the sole institution today, as multiple forces have emerged to manipulate media outlets.”

Throughout Pakistan’s history, newspapers and periodicals critical of the governments’ policies have been given exemplary punishments through different means. The publications were either closed down outright, or were strangled economically. The book provides several examples of tactics used by both the civilian and martial governments to bring newspapers financially to their knees, by withholding government advertisements or imposing newsprint quotas — an element Dr Tauseef Ahmad has also discussed in detail in his own book Azaadi-i-Sahafat ki Jiddojehad Mein Akhbari Tanzeemoon Ka Kirdar [The Role of Newspaper Organisations in the Struggle for Press Freedom].

On the other hand, jihadist newspapers have flourished in the country. For instance, in the second chapter of the book, Faizullah Jan examines how jihadi publications have helped boost extremism. His study is geographically limited to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). He showcases the story of Abdullah, whose father Mohammad Ilyas sent him on jihad to Kashmir where he was killed by Indian forces. Interestingly, Jan writes that Abdullah had been an avid reader of jihad-expounding Al Qalam and Zarb-i-Momin — weekly newspapers published by apparently proscribed militant organisations Jaish-e-Muhammad and Al-Rashid Trust, respectively — for 12 years before his expedition.

The jihadi phenomenon is not new in the country; it has been patronised and promoted for a long time. Some writers try to find out its roots in the country from 1977 onwards, but some go deeper into the background. Through Sulehria’s writings, I assume he has an avid interest in extremism-related topics. In his chapter ‘Jihad on Screen’, Sulehria is of the opinion that the country did not embrace Islamicisation until 1977, when Gen Zia came into power by imposing martial law. “To legitimise his martial law, a process of Islamising [sic] the state and society was unleashed.” He further writes, “While various factors in the rise of Islamisation [sic] in Pakistan have been explored, no study has been conducted to examine the role of state-sponsored television and film production in relation to Islamisation [sic].”

The chapter that triggered me most is ‘The Cost of Doing Their Job Online: Harassment of Women Journalists’ by journalist-turned-academic Ayesha Khan, who delves deep into the harassment of women news reporters and journalists in the country. Her study is further interesting because of a recent episode in which a group of female journalists and commentators sought protection against what they termed “vicious attacks” directed at them through social media, allegedly by people linked to the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government.

Speaking historically and bluntly, the press has been in chains from day one in the country. Our priorities, as usual, bear this out; whether in a civilian or martial government, the aim has been to curb the freedoms of the press, religious minorities and other vulnerable groups in the country.

In a sexually frustrated society such as ours, it is not surprising that female journalists are victims of online harassment. After my review of Hazara writer Hasan Riza Changezai’s book Qissa Haaey Natamaam [Unfinished Stories] was published in this newspaper, I received a strange message from a banker wanting to know whether I had a Hazara girlfriend or not. Although I usually don’t reply to such messages, I asked why the person wanted to know. He replied, strangely, that he had presumed it was so since I had written a couple of articles about the community.

Coming back to Khan’s chapter, although online trolling and harassment of female journalists has been existent from the very outset, she writes: “in Pakistan, online trolling of women journalists accelerated in 2016 following the murder of Pakistani social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch.”

According to journalist Farah Zia in ‘What Freedom? Reflections of a Working Journalist’, the Kargil War taught one key lesson to the government in power: it needed to create more space for electronic media to have bigger propaganda tools at its hand. As a result, private television channels sprang up in the country following the 2002 period, to counteract the Indian private television channels that were already in place in the 1990s.

Despite the ever-increasing number of private television channels, according to Khan there are still only a handful of women journalists in the country — only around five percent of the journalism community. In summing up, she writes that several studies have suggested being a woman is reason enough for being trolled online.

All the chapters in the book are equally important, but most equally important is the last chapter, ‘Covering the Periphery: Balochistan as a Blind Spot in the Mainstream Newspapers of Pakistan’ by Adnan Amir, who discusses news and media coverage of Balochistan. Amir rightly states that Balochistan is sorely neglected and not given due importance and space. He analyses the quantity and quality of news coverage given to the province in two mainstream Pakistani newspapers and argues that “Balochistan is covered by the mainstream media only when it offers tabloid fare for what can be called ‘disaster journalism’.”

Last but not least, the book portrays journalism through different contexts and angles as to how it has evolved through different decades. It is critical, informative and argumentative, which is why it is a worthy read.

The reviewer is a member of staff. He tweets @Akbar_notezai

From Terrorism to Television: Dynamics of Media, State and Society in Pakistan
By Qaiser Abbas and Farooq Sulehria
Routledge, India
ISBN: 978-0367425821

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 31st, 2021


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