The love and hate relationship between Pakistan’s establishment and the press is symptomatic of its chequered democratic history. Behind the façade of a vibrant and free media, press in particular has always been on the receiving end with periodic clamp downs. Ironically, these clamp downs or attempt to throttle the voice of the press have not been restricted to the periods of military rule. Successive civilian administrations have also been guilty of such iron fisted action on media. The latest diktat of the Imran Khan government to block media coverage and interview of politicians who are either convicts or under-trial prisoner and direction to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to fulfill its “responsibility” have to be view in this overall backdrop of establishment controlling media in Pakistan.
Earlier, news television channels Channel 24, Abtak News, and Capital TV were taken off air across the country after airing an explosive interview of Maryam Nawaz- daughter of former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif in which sharing a video evidence, she charged that the judge who had convicted her father on corruption charges a year ago was “blackmailed”. The judge has since denied the claim. Pakistan’s media regulator issued notices to TV news channels for airing the press conference live. Pakistani authorities say the channels were unavailable due to “technical issues”, but others described the outage as an act of “brazen censorship”.
It is important to mention that PEMRA’s legal mechanisms usually impose restrictions on subject matters and issues, and not coverage of certain classes of individuals. Much of PEMRA’s laws relate to ensuring that a licensee, amongst other things, airs content in an objective manner and does not air content that is deemed to be obscene, against Islamic values, inciting hatred, justifying violence or containing aspersions against the judiciary or the armed forces. While the media is legally not allowed to engage in dissecting sub judice matters, imposing blanket ban on media coverage on politicians facing trial or convicted politicians, even if such reporting is analytical and factual, prejudices the media’s right to freedom of speech and the public’s right to access to information.
Over the last year, journalists and rights groups have been repeatedly disrupted by the authorities and the distribution networks for print and television news services over coverage deemed unfavourable to the ruling party or the country’s powerful military. There have been accusations in recent years of the country’s powerful military putting pressure on the media to stop coverage critical of its policies.
The space for free media is shrinking in Pakistan. It routinely ranks among the world’s most dangerous countries for media workers and reporters have frequently been detained, beaten and even killed for being critical of the government or powerful military. It’s not only the coercive force of the state in play but social media is also being used as a weapon to intimidate journalists. Systematic smear campaigns are launched to silence those who dare to raise their voice. Pakistan now has dozens of independent news channels and it is quite difficult to steer the public discourse in Pakistan in one direction. As a result of all this, the general public has acquired a certain level of independence of thought and is no longer buying official narratives.
Journalism in Pakistan has indeed progressed over the past decades in discursive, technological and institutional terms. With the dissemination and subsequent regulation of satellite and broadcast technologies, journalism has morphed into a form characterised by 24-hour “breaking” news, known as “the media”. At the same time, virtual spaces on the internet, driven by social media sites, have opened up new spheres of debate and discussion. It would, however, be a misnomer to conflate these forms of progress with the attainment of “Freedom”. As long as it remains true that there is a fine line demarcating what can and cannot be said in public discourse, journalistic or expressive freedom, in a political sense, in fact, is never truly attained.
Script: Dr. SMITA, Strategic Analyst On Af-Pak Affairs