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Being silenced

October 22, 2012

THE rate at which certain traditional technologies are being rendered obsolete would, just a few years ago, have been thought impossible. But in many ways, it seems that the future is already upon us.

This year has so far seen the demise of three iconic giants. In January, the company that brought mass amateur photography to the world — Kodak, or the Eastman Kodak Company — filed for bankruptcy under US laws that would allow it to restructure itself.

It may yet manage to save itself from total oblivion, but it seems certain that the Kodak moment is over. This was the firm whose research enabled celluloid film, home videos, print and even digital photography — Kodak, being the pioneer of digital photography but failing to see its immense potential, in a sense died by its own hand.

Then in March, after 244 years of a noble printing tradition, the Encyclopaedia Britannica announced that it would no longer be printing physical copies of the reference books. It would concentrate on the digital version instead.

Over recent years, the print edition — comprising 32 volumes in the last 2010 edition, priced at upwards of $1,000 — accounted for less than one per cent of the company’s revenue. For the online version — which can be constantly updated — the subscription stands at under a couple of dollars.

“We’d like to think our tradition is not print,” said company president Jorge Cauz while announcing the decision, “but to bring scholarly knowledge to people.” Now comes the disclosure that the diminishing year will take with it that venerable staple of homes and offices, Newsweek magazine (the US edition; it still has foreign print licences in Japan, Mexico, Poland, Pakistan and South Korea, and is negotiating two new licences in Asia).

After its establishment in 1933 Newsweek, along with Time, was considered at the forefront of credible news-disseminating organisations. Its circulation peaked in 1991 at 3.3 million. But then, amongst a host of myriad problems, the exigencies of the new, digital, world kicked in. From January, a digital magazine with a paid-for subscription called Newsweek Global will be published.

Where the digital age is threatening traditional methods of news dissemination in the West, here in Pakistan, though, where reality is generally a lot grittier and perhaps more distasteful than in many other countries, the news media are under threat from a different quarter entirely; a sneakier but deadlier, dark-deed-in-the-dark-of-night sort of threat.

Here, we are facing a situation where individuals and organisations are having to ask themselves how direct they can be, how far they can go — how far would it be wise to go? — even when reporting the truth, and nothing but the truth.

The enormity of the significance of the attack on Malala Yousafzai took the focus away from the second specified threat posed by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan soon after. Reportedly, in a call intercepted by the intelligence agencies, TTP chief Hakeemullah Mehsud gave subordinates “special directions” to attack media houses, apparently because of the very critical coverage of the shooting incident.

That fear tactics do work is clear from Imran Khan’s original statement that he did not wish to name the TTP for their crime against a teenager because that might invite the terrorists’ ire.

It cannot be denied that even other than specific threats the TTP issues against persons or groups, this is generally a society that lives in fear. Can the media, which together appears such a formidable edifice but is at the same time comprised of individuals and assets such as buildings and machinery, be held immune to the general shadow under which everybody lives?

Because the truth of the matter is that even leaving aside a significant and identifiable threat such as the TTP, in the Pakistan of now violence can come from any, even an unexpected, quarter. What the growing extremism in recent years has also meant is that in the national mindset, the gloves have come off; the fight is bare-knuckled and vicious.

From the murders of Salmaan Taseer to Saleem Shahzad and the attempt on Malala’s life, the lesson given out is that calling a spade a spade, true though it may be, can be enough to invite violence. And who stands first in the line of fire than those whose professional obligation it is to bring the truth to light?

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that media people and houses are having to suppress the truth. Not yet. But they are certainly having to consider very carefully their output regarding certain issues, which includes coverage of the extremist and/or religious right, the blasphemy laws and most matters that touch upon religion in any way.

Caveats and disclaimers are added; where the ideal in deciding how hard a stance to take on any issue ought to be the enormity of the issue itself, it is becoming a matter of how far it is possible to go before an attack becomes a certainty.

We are at the brink of losing the hard-won freedom of the press that not just media outlets but the citizenry at large has campaigned so long for. So far, to their great credit, journalists on the frontlines and those arguing the less palatable truths are in general continuing to do their job. But the process of self-censorship in the face of grave risk has seeped in.

The writer is a member of staff.