by Mehrooj Rai 1 November 2019
“If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” George Orwell

Journalists and media persons today are going through one of the most difficult times in the history of Pakistan. The space for media’s freedom, dissent and democracy is shrinking alarmingly. The voices of activists, anchors, columnists, civil society and elected representatives are being stifled and silenced.

In democratic dispensations, free and independent media is a fundamental pillar. But the PTI regime is strangling press freedom and this has badly reversed the democratic political process. In this age of populism and hyper-nationalism, media crackdown continues unchecked, journalists are practicing self-censorship and media houses are working under a climate of fear.

Pakistan is sprinting towards authoritarianism as it seems that the government wants a restricted narrative to be the basis for the media to function. The anti-democratic approach of the system seems to be blatantly and blindly digging in the heels. The tools of political victimization and unannounced media censorship are being employed so enthusiastically by the government that they are only exposing their own insecurities and apprehensions.

The media has been callously attacked time and again throughout the chequered history of the country and suppressed by the malicious dictators and non-democratic civilians. But history tells such steps never yield any results and such restrictions only prove to be counter-productive.

In the present system of a civilian incarnation of martial law, free speech has started coming at a high cost. Pakistan is facing a well-orchestrated drive against freedom of expression as freedom of speech is being curtailed. The institutions are behaving like individuals and criticism is being considered not only unacceptable but even a crime.

The whole meaning of Anti-State in current times has become not only synonymous to an Anti-PTI sentiment but even to the slightest criticism of the PTI government.

A few months ago, the official account of PTI lambasted the press for criticism through multiples tweets with the hashtag #JournalismNotAgenda, warning the media to refrain from the “abuse of freedom of expression.” In a blistering attack, PTI called critical coverage as peddling “enemy’s stance” and equated criticism with “treason.” One tweet read, “Freedom of Expression is beauty of Democracy. Expressing Enemy’s Stance is Not Freedom of speech but treason against its people.”

There have been several examples as of late where interviews and press conferences of opposition members were either suspended mid-broadcast or not shown at all. Interviews of former President, Asif Ali Zardari and former PM Nawaz Sharif’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz were blocked and now restrictions have been imposed on JUI chief, Fazal-ur-Rehman’s live coverage as well.

The irony is that Imran Khan used to often credit a free media for his own rise to power. He received wall-to-wall media coverage during his 2014 dharna, which received live and extended coverage on all national media forums.

After winning elections last year, PM Imran Khan said, “Had it not been free media and independent journalists, I would have not been in this position. I will never forget what the media has done for me.” But now his government cannot bear the coverage of opposition as there is media blackout of opposition’s rallies, demonstrations and pressers.

This subjugation may work to serve short term goals but eventually it consumes the perpetrator itself. Quelling the opposition and silencing objective criticism and independent voices through intimidation cannot counter the mismanagement of the government.

Controlling advertisements for electronic and print media, making attempts to eliminate the critics and encourage a pliant media and infringing on the democratic rights of the citizens manifest the fascist proclivities of the regime.

In a scathing directive issued on 26th October, PEMRA restrained television anchors from giving their personal opinions during talk shows and limited their role to “moderator.” The electronic media watchdog also barred anchors hosting regular shows from appearing as experts in similar talk shows in their own or other channels. The action was slammed from all quarters and the Lahore High Court suspended this notification.

During Fawad Chaudhry’s time as Information Minister, a draft bill proposing the creation of a unified body, Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA), with merger of PEMRA and Press Council for the purpose of regulating all types of media, set alarm bells ringing and the idea was dropped after being rejected by stakeholders.

In another instance, Firdous Ashiq Awan, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister for Information and Broadcasting, announced the government’s plan to establish media tribunals to expeditiously handle media-related complaints. Following backlash, the government later backed down and rescinded the decision.

Furthermore, Steven Butler, who is the Asia programme coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), came to participate in Asma Jahangir Conference but was denied entry by Pakistan’s authorities. Despite the fact that he had had a valid visa, he was informed that his name had been placed on a ‘stop list’ upon his arrival at the Lahore airport and he was sent to Washington on a flight via Qatar.

PTI’S aggression and imperiousness as a result of either guilty conscience or living in some fool’s paradise is only translating in instances of either petulant conduct or of arbitrary coercion.

The tendencies of the PTI regime are reminiscent of the times of military dictators. In fact considering the ongoing manipulation of media, the current government is proving to be even worse than dictatorships.

But still, as the PM Imran Khan said during his visit to Washington, “Pakistan has one of the freest presses in the world…To say there are curbs on the Pakistan press is a joke.”