‘Enforcement of PMDA will be the death of media’

Published August 26, 2021
The seminar under way at Szabist on Wednesday.—White Star
The seminar under way at Szabist on Wednesday.—White Star

KARACHI: A seminar titled ‘Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA): concerns and implications’ was organised by the social sciences department of Szabist on Wednesday evening on the premises of the institute.

Dr Tauseef Ahmed Khan, giving the background to the situation, said the fight for media freedom is a continuation of a long struggle. It is often argued that Pakistan has more freedom of the press compared to some other countries such as Thailand; this has to be understood. The Indo-Pak imperialist model is different from the rest of the countries. Although the East India Company’s rule in India was terrible, after 1857 they took a few [positive] steps. The first thing that they did was that they brought about education and a new administrative system. Electricity was introduced. The judicial system and democracy were put in place. The first newspaper that came out was by an Englishman.

Dr Khan said subsequently newspapers in other languages came out. When English papers were being published, the East India Company did not introduce any law. But when regional language newspapers (in Urdu, Bengali, Hindi, etc) appeared, the Company thought now was the time to control the media. The first law in that regard was introduced in 1823 when words such as licence (also used in the PMDA draft) were employed.

Politicians talk of free media in opposition, gag the press when in power, seminar told

The factors mentioned in that law are being repeated to date. For example, whoever would publish a newspaper would need a licence; the newspaper would be censored; editor and publisher of the paper would be responsible for whatever was being published in it; and whoever had the licence would be allowed to set up a printing press.

After that he delved deeper into similar laws and ordinances from that time period up until the present day.

‘Fake democracy’

Journalist Mazhar Abbas said the phrase ‘fake news’ is often used in Pakistan, the fact is that there’s “fake democracy” in the country. The issue is that politicians talk about freedom of the press only when they’re in the opposition. When they come to power, they deal with the media in an authoritarian way. The PMDA has a background which is to do with the lawyers’ movement during Gen Musharraf’s rule. In that, the establishment didn’t believe that the sitting judges would also side with the deposed chief justice. For the first time in the history of judiciary in the country, judiciary’s defiance came across as effective. This was followed by the emergence of the media. These two had always been under attack from civil and military governments since Pakistan’s inception.

Mr Abbas said at the time it was decided that independence of judiciary and media should be ‘curtailed’. There were two ways of doing it. One, divide the media; two, the stick and carrot policy. They succeeded to a certain extent.

He rounded off his speech by commenting, “If the PMDA is enforced, it will be the death of media.”

Journalist Ashraf Khan said from the very beginning there’s been a concerted effort by a particular lobby to run the country on ‘perception’ and to keep the people away from ‘reality’. In 1952, during the cricket Test match between Pakistan and India, the members of the Indian cricket team were greeted warmly by the citizens of Lahore. Similarly, players from the Pakistani team were treated warmly in Amritsar when they visited India. The first generation on both sides which witnessed partition of the subcontinent wanted to coexist with each other. But the perception of the third and fourth generations, and Indians’ sentiments for us, are now based on perception. The same doctrine is being used in the laws to gag the media.

‘Third-World fascism’

Speaking from the capital via video link, Nasir Zaidi, the secretary general of one of the factions of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), said in the Musharraf era a concept paper reached him. Its gist was that the media wasn’t taking the state’s narrative in the right direction, and its lack of depth was creating disenchantment among people. Therefore, a situation should be created in which the media could give priority to the state’s narrative.

He also talked about the different measures that the PFUJ was taking to oppose the PMDA.

Karamat Ali of the Pakistan Institute of Labour, Education and Research (Piler) said the best description of the state was given by the intellectual Noam Chomsky many years back. He called it ‘Third-World fascism’. Pakistani governments to date are pushing the same thing. Although it will be challenged, they want to make sure that the challenge that surfaces after every 10 years is stopped.

“It’s not just a struggle of journalists alone or workers alone. It has both aspects. Unless we see both struggles side by side, no democratic mobilisation is possible,” he said.

Dr Riaz Sheikh moderated the event.

Published in Dawn, August 26th, 2021

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