Muzzling the media

Published April 29, 2021
The writer is a barrister.
The writer is a barrister.

WITH World Press Freedom Day around the corner, we are offered with, if nothing else, a delicious excuse to delve into the recent past and make some sort of an assessment, however vague, of where we truly stand — are the gatekeepers of our information free and independent and pluralistic, or are they controlled and gagged, and thus, perpetually afraid of what they may say, of the unspoken yet vivid lines they may cross, so much so, that rather than declaring the truth, as is their right and duty, they are compelled to whisper it, in riddles and rhymes.

A very useful point of reference is the EU Election Observer Mission’s final report on the 2018 general election, which noted that although our media appeared both “vibrant” and “free”, its “editorial policies were carefully calibrated to downplay issues relating to the army, state security structures and the judiciary”. In addition, it detected “concerted efforts to stifle the reporting environment”, and concluded that in such circumstances, “severe self-censorship was the safest way to continue publication”.

Even today, it offers fascinating insight. Firstly, the bizarre revelation that “senior editors from liberal-leaning media houses received phone calls from state actors”, who offered “instructions” on how “key events and rulings” ought to be discussed. A similar strategy was employed at local levels too, where “district information officers” and “other state actors” offered “advice” on how political parties were to be covered. Regrettably, the report failed to mention exactly who these “state actors” and “other state actors” were.

Stranger still is the erratic behaviour it attributed to Pemra, our chief media regulator, which stands accused of having displayed “clear bias” in exercising its authority. For one, it penalised “six TV channels for violating campaign silence”, but neglected to do the same when two other channels breached its guidelines by airing preliminary results “showing the PTI’s victory”. Furthermore, it took no affirmative action when cable operators “removed Geo News from the distribution list in cantonment areas and changed the channel placement for Dawn”, or even when they completely pulled the plug on Geo News “in residential parts of Lahore and Karachi” for two consecutive days.

The harsh truth is that our media operates in a dangerously negotiated space.

When asked by the mission for access to its decisions on formal complaints, Pemra politely informed them that these were “confidential”, a position also adopted by its sub-offices, none of whom were willing to disclose their records or provide details of their monitoring methods. According to the report (and according to common sense), these actions “raised questions about the regulator’s motivation”.

This was quite a damning indictment of state-sponsored repression of our media. An international watchdog (invited by our state for its supposed neutrality no less), evaluated that both electronic and print media — the largest disseminators of information to the general public — faced significant constraints in being able to freely report on matters of public interest, issues that deeply affected the lives and livelihoods of our people. That these observations were made within the context of a general election only adds insult to injury, for there is no time more decisive for a country than the tense few months in which it elects its chosen representatives.

More crucially, it lent yet another (very credible) piece of evidence to the long-held claim that our state operates on a policy of actively attempting to, let us call it, ‘muzzle’ the media, for what it describes is a plain violation of Article 19, which guarantees both freedom of expression and the press, subject of course to reasonable restrictions imposed by law — none of which allow Pemra to apply discriminatory sanctioning policies or to turn a blind eye to the sinister machinations of ‘cable operators’, and certainly none of which allow state actors to pressurise media outlets into promoting any kind of narrative.

You see, while our premier may claim that it is “a joke” to suggest that there are “curbs on Pakistani media”, ground realities paint a picture that leaves little room for casual comedy. The harsh truth is that our media operates in a dangerously negotiated space. Journalists are routinely harassed, threatened, assaulted and even killed — all with impunity. Some find themselves faced with trumped-up charges, while others mysteriously fall off the grid, either to resurface after what trolls call ‘software updates’, or never be heard from again.

All this has nurtured a pervasive culture of silence, where much of value is simply being left unsaid, and whatever is said is wrapped up in euphemisms. But euphemisms carry a danger of their own, for that which cannot be openly named becomes that which cannot be identified, and that which cannot be identified shall forever remain that which cannot be held to account.

Since the election, things have become noticeably worse. Pakistan has slid from 139 to 145 on the World Press Freedom Index, and there has been a sudden uptick in novel suppressive tactics — only last month, a UN human rights panel expressed serious concern over what it said was “an alarming pattern” of “meritless charges” being brought against reporters and rights activists. If such trends keep up, the future may only offer bleak quietism.

There are no doubt a multitude of problems plaguing our media — from the malaise of yellow journalism, to insensitive reporting and outright bias. However, these are deep-rooted and systemic issues, which can only be corrected through transparent regulation and stringent application of the existing laws on defamation (preferably of the civil variety, since criminal defamation is quickly being abandoned for its potential chilling effects).

What must be understood though, is that underhanded manipulation of the media will not help — it shall only create further polarisation and fragmentation, not to mention risk pushing us further into the black hole of disinformation that already surrounds us.

For citizens in a democratic set-up, a free flow of credible information is the only true source power. It tells us exactly what the state machinery is up to — its actions, its omissions and most importantly, its transgressions. Whosoever robs of us of this right, commits a traitorous and unforgivable betrayal of our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.

The writer is a barrister.

Published in Dawn, April 29th, 2021

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