The late Zamir Niazi (left), trailblazing author and activist on press rights and freedoms, has rightly been described as the “conscience of the free press in Pakistan.” Seen on the right is former PFUJ president Ahfazur Rehman falling to the ground as police baton-charge journalists and media workers during a protest organised in Karachi for freedom of the press. - Photos: Dawn Archives
The late Zamir Niazi (left), trailblazing author and activist on press rights and freedoms, has rightly been described as the “conscience of the free press in Pakistan.” Seen on the right is former PFUJ president Ahfazur Rehman falling to the ground as police baton-charge journalists and media workers during a protest organised in Karachi for freedom of the press. - Photos: Dawn Archives

PAKISTAN lost its democratic direction soon after its birth. If one goes through the events from 1947 to 1958, it is not difficult to reach the conclusion that freedom of the press had been among the first casualties after the death of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The Constitution was another, followed by the judiciary.

The dream of Quaid’s Pakistan ended with the first martial law, imposed months after the sitting army chief at the time was made the defence minister as well. That appointment, in the words of former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Lt-Gen Hameed Gul, was the original sin in the history of military intervention in Pakistan’s politics.

Roedad Khan, who belonged to the first batch that was inducted into the Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP), disclosed to me recently that subsequent governments “always wanted to control the press. That was one of the reasons why black colonial laws were retained”.

Journalist and author, the late Asrar Ahmad, in his book Walls Have Ears wrote about how the English weekly Freedom, published jointly by M.H. Syed, the former private secretary of Quaid-i-Azam, and Yusuf Afghan, a columnist from Karachi, had greatly irked the administration. The then administrator, Syed Hashim Raza, ordered that all of the weekly’s content be submitted for scrutiny and approval to the district magistrate before publication.

Freedom of the press has been consistently violated by both military and civilian-led governments, making a free press today a receding dream

Constant pressure was exerted on the press in the early years of Pakistan through ‘press advisories’, colonial laws and other coercive measures. Whether it was Jinnah’s historic first address to the Constituent Assembly on Aug 11, 1947, or the questions regarding the fitness of the ambulance in which Jinnah was taken to hospital in Karachi, or the assassination of prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan, the press could not report events in any way other than the official versions of the event.

Jinnah himself had been strongly against press curbs. He had not signed the Public Safety Act as he feared it would be used against the press. It only became law after his death, and was followed by dozens of other anti-press laws. With them, the bureaucracy started controlling the press with a classic carrot-and-stick approach.

The government, through the Ministry of Information, controlled advertisements and used them to bargain with newspaper owners. Most of the latter became organs of the state and turned the press into a commercial industry. Pakistani media houses were never allowed to grow enough to become the eyes and the ears of the people. Instead, most of them became mouthpieces of successive governments. In the process, we lost both our freedom as well as our independence.

A respected editor of his time, the late S. Manzarul Hasan, once said: “The process of curbing the freedom of the press began soon after the creation of Pakistan. The proprietors who started publishing newspapers after independence had no concept of the relationship between the press and the government in a free country. For them, publishing a newspaper was an industry. And to make this enterprise profitable, they needed government help and patronage. The government was too happy to treat it as an industry. In return for this help and patronage, the proprietors surrendered the freedom of the press.”

Whatever happened in the first 10 years of our national life was repeated in the next 10; till 1968 The first martial law brought the press under government control through a new law, the reviled Press and Publication Ordinance (PPO), 1960, and its amended version of 1963. Through these laws, the government took control of Progressive Papers Ltd and other media enterprises, and brought reputable papers, like Pakistan Times, Morning News, Mashriq and Imroz, under its thumb.

The travails of Pakistani media did not end in the third decade. If anything, they became worse as the overall situation grew worse. The 1970-71 crisis in East Pakistan was never reported as it should have been journalistically speaking. Either out of fear of the state, or out of their own judgement, no media house presented a picture close to the reality of what was happening in the East Wing.

The hopes that things will improve under the country’s first elected government, under prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, soon stood shattered. Bhutto had promised greater freedoms, but he retained the black laws, and used other laws, like Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, against journalists. Quite a few publications, both newspapers and weeklies, were banned.

Midway through the third decade, the country’s third martial law, under Gen Ziaul Haq, was a true nightmare for the press. For the first time, journalists, in addition to being put behind the bars, were also flogged in public.

Zia’s Information Secretary, the late Lt-Gen Mujeebur Rehman, had so much power in his hand that even after Mohammad Khan Junejo was elected prime minister in 1985, he censored a line from the prime minister’s inaugural speech, in which he had said, “Democracy and Martial Law cannot go together.” When Junejo came to know about the omission, he summoned Gen Mujeeb, confronted him, and promptly sacked him.

Junejo not only abolished the PPO, but also allowed civil liberties. The press got some freedom, but till then, most newspaper owners had already capitulated, wishing to keep their commercial interests above press freedoms.

The fourth military takeover, led by Gen Pervez Musharraf, was unlike the draconian periods of Ayub and Zia. He did not come down hard on the media even in his initial years. Subsequently he opened up space for private television channels, believing that in the post-Kargil period, India had won the war of narratives through its media.

A divided house

Today, the national media, including print, electronic and digital, is a divided house beset with all kinds of challenges; from direct threats and intimidation, to a crisis of credibility arising from a constant decline in professionalism.

People in the profession are often heard wondering rhetorically as the sheer inability of a government to put restrictions ‘in the age of satellite and internet’. Yet, in the last 10 years, nearly a thousand notices have been issued by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) to private television channels for one reason or the other. I personally have copies of 600 such notices. Many channels have been taken off air for one reason or the other, journalists have gone missing, some have been killed, and the voice of dissent is something that is no longer acceptable.

While the future of professional media is uncertain, the social media, with its own dimensions and attractions is an entirely different proposition. Any individual with a smartphone considers himself better informed than everyone else. Whether the information getting disseminated is factually correct or not is the least of anyone’s concern.

We have now fully entered the era of fake news where disinformation is sometimes the only information available. It has taken the country by storm. Gone are the days of professional journalism, when old-timers would admonish us to, “Get the news first, but first get it right.”

Author of four books on journalism, the late Zamir Niazi, once said: “This is not the age of mass media education, but of mass media disinformation and misinformation. The [media] owners are ready to spend millions on machines and technology, but are not prepared to spare even a few thousand on training the people behind the machine.” That is a bit more true today.

Modern-day challenges

A new era of democracy has given some relief to the media, but the famed ‘hidden hands’ continue to monitor and target journalists. In the last 13 years of uninterrupted democracy, nearly 50 journalists have been killed. Some regressively anti-media laws, like the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca), 2016, have also been passed.

Not only journalists, but rights activists and bloggers, particularly those critical of state policy, have become Peca’s prime target. This law is still intact and is being used to harass journalists.

Jinnah, during a speech in 1936, had raised his voice against the Indian Press (Emergency) Act of 1931, due to which newspapers had ceased publication. The issue was a speech made by Pandit K.K. Malaviya, which a paper had reproduced.

Jinnah argued: “The freedom of speech gives me a right to publish it and that I am not punishable … We have complete freedom to make any speech that we like, express any opinion we like, and we are not liable to any action outside by any court, civil or criminal … it is the privilege of the newspaper to have the proceedings published and so long as they are true, fair and faithful, it is not liable to any action.”

We are nowhere near Jinnah’s vision regarding freedom of expression and independence of media. We could never find the direction we lost soon after independence. Cracks have now clearly appeared on the pillars of the state. The fourth of those pillars, too, cannot stay immune to the happenings around it. Though it has grown in size, it has gradually lost its credibility.

There is, thus, an urgent need to revisit the foundations of Pakistani journalism. Freedom is, and must remain, our cherished destiny because, without it, one can neither have true democracy nor the rule of law.

The writer, among other things, is a media historian.

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