Attempt to gag

Published May 31, 2021
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

YOU may not be aware, but a long-running effort to deny you access to independent information is culminating. The state’s attempts to control the media are blatant and blunt. If they succeed, Pakistan will be authoritarian in all but name.

Attacks against outspoken journalists have become shameless; they are shot at strolling in the nation’s capital, or thrashed in their homes. Inquiries are launched, but culprits are never apprehended. Online, armies of trolls baselessly accuse journalists of reporting fake news, eroding both their mental health and credibility with threats of rape and murder.

Editorial: While tabling of journalist protection bills is welcome, implementation is what matters

Meanwhile, the government is trying to push through the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) Ordinance 2021, which media and rights groups have termed akin to ‘media martial law’. This seeks to centralise media oversight under one draconian authority. Media outlets will need annual NOCs to remain operational, and would be subject to suspension and arbitrary fees and penalties, with no onus on the government to provide warning or rationales for clampdowns. The law might enable the break-up of large media groups and extend control to digital platforms. What better way to turn media outlets into state mouthpieces than by making them entirely reliant on the government to stay in business?

Ironically, despite years of journalists’ pleas to end impunity for killings and harassment, the PMDA also calls for media tribunals to mete swift punishment to journalists for violating the new rules. This is what it looks like when you formalise censorship.

A draconian new media law is in the offing.

And yet, the information minister still insists that Pakistan is “one of the freest states as far as media is concerned”. Mr Chaudhry, simply publishing and broadcasting (and that too under threat, and on the direction of Pemra and other backchannel directives) do not amount to freedom. Freedom is about what you can say, and how. And those options are ever diminishing.

No government wants to deal with a free press. Who wants to be criticised? Who wants to be held accountable? And this is precisely why the fourth estate is essential in functioning (even hybrid) democracies. Sadly, this simple point seems lost on a key constituency — large sections of Pakistan’s burgeoning middle class.

For ages, this group was politically apathetic. Now mobilised, it has bought into the PTI’s populist politics, which paints the press as complicit and corrupt. It doesn’t help that this constituency’s main engagement with the press is through political talk shows, which over the past two decades have brought out the worst in an industry gasping to survive while playing a cut-throat ratings game. Middle-class audiences assume that journalists who are killed, beaten or disappeared deserved it — that journalists cry foul because they are anti-army traitors trying to emigrate to the West.

This fugue state is exacerbated by the narrow middle-class conception of the media as hostile to the state. This ‘us-versus-them’ dynamic is an accident of Pakistan’s fumbling political trajectory, and the existential crisis that the press has faced through each martial law — and most democratic spells too. Our history has clouded over the fact that a free media defends the public’s interests — not only against state institutions but also corporates, international actors and any others who hold power.

These dynamics are not new, but they are playing out in a changing world. Previous regimes had to indulge a free press to keep up appearances globally. But who can defend Pakistan’s journalists when there are few repercussions for those who persecuted Roman Protasevich, Jamal Khashoggi, and Daphne Caruana Galizia?

The extent to which media freedom has been reduced to lip service was laid bare by the recent cabinet-level approval of a journalists’ protection bill, which will help Pakistan retain its GSP-Plus trading status with the EU. Days later, Asad Ali Toor was tortured by namaloom afraad (‘unknown’ individuals) exposing this bill as the cynical ploy it is.

The only hope for Pakistan’s media is for the middle class to realise how critical an uncensored press is for their own freedom, safety and prosperity. This is a tough ask: it requires the public to deconstruct deep-running institutional power tussles in Pakistan. Who has the patience to consider this? And who has the credibility to deliver the message without being undone with an allegation of foreign funding, a death threat, or worse?

Journalists also need to get better at documenting the nature and scale of the pressure they face. This will require unprecedented solidarity, which has been absent in the face of the state’s divide-and-conquer strategies of recent years. But we are at a tipping point. Senior journalists at protests last week indicated that it’s time to name the ‘known unknowns’ who harass and attack journalists. Let the press do what it does best, and hold them accountable.

The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, May 31st, 2021

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