GOVERNMENTS in Pakistan somehow refuse to acknowledge the futility of imposing blanket bans on media coverage. It was therefore not surprising, though rather unfortunate, that the PTI government decided to go down this blind alley when violence flared up in Lahore on Sunday and the TLP cadres rampaged across the city for the entirety of the day.
The government used Pemra to forbid any coverage of the TLP failing which there could be consequences for the media. As the Pemra instructions applied to TV channels, this ban ensured that social media was the only source of information about the violence raging in the city.
With no filters for veracity, social media can be lethal if not countered with the process of verification through the mainstream media. This is what led to the TLP dominating the narrative even though much of what it was claiming may not have been accurate. Silence from government officials for the better part of the day and the total absence of coverage from the mainstream media resulted in rumours and half-baked information circulating throughout the country. Video clips devoid of authenticity in terms of time and context also went viral thereby creating perceptions that may have different from reality. Due to the media blackout, the TLP was able to blame the police for the attack and the ensuing violence. It was only much later that the police could verify that in fact it was the TLP crowd that had attacked the police station and taken many policemen hostage.
The government must realise that blacking out media coverage through Pemra is an inadvisable option and leads to more harm than good. A free flow of information is the best way to counter rumour-mongering and fake news. The government always has the advantage of pushing through its narrative through the media by sharing facts and providing access to the media. All these advantages were frittered away when the government blundered into the blanket ban.
There is no doubt that the TLP has done grievous damage to its own cause by resorting to violence and the government must not dither from taking legal action against all those responsible for damage to life and property. In this day and age, stopping the flow of information is next to impossible, which is why smart governments leverage the power of the media to build perceptions, forge narratives and mould public opinion in support of their policies. In the current stand-off with the TLP, the government needs to make the case for its strategy and not allow the organisation to frame the issue from its own perspective. Had the government not blacked out media coverage, citizens could have seen for themselves how the TLP generated violence on the streets. At the same time, the government should utilise all options to negotiate with the TLP leadership so that the situation is brought under control.
Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2021