This year in August, torrential rains wreak havoc in the biggest city of Pakistan Karachi leaving 23 people dead and damaging city’s outdated infrastructure. The rains didn’t spare posh areas including Defence Housing Authority, commonly known as DHA, and extravagantly built Behria Town. Several feet high rainwater roamed on newly built wide roads and entered into the houses of the Behria town. Sorry tales of the posh town residents would have gone unnoticed had there been no social media accounts posting footages of rain water. Mainstream media, however, didn’t air awful footages of Behria Town instead kept televising urban flooding in parts of Karachi and Sindh.
This was not the first time that over 3 dozens of news channels ignored taking up issue related to Behria Town. Be it a National Crime Agency’s (NCA)£190 million settlement with Malik Riaz, owner of Behria Town, in 2019, or Riaz’s$2 billion settlement with government over illegal land occupation in Karachi, media keeps shameful silence.
The much touted town, built on all modern day standards and a luxurious place to live in, is owned by Riaz, who helmed to become real estate tycoon by allegedly illegal land grabbing and is known for buying anything. Channel owners, reporters and anchors are therefore of no exception. He feeds media with several minute long commercials during prime-time slots thus becoming a major source of channels’ revenue, gifts plots to anchors who then portray him as messiah and donates generously to needy families that helps him his image building.
Just when Karachi rains were occupying media screens, a story by Ahmad Noorani, an investigative journalist, drawn public attention when he revealed properties owned by Lt Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa (retd). Noorani alleged that Bajwa, who is currently head of the CPEC authority, runs a parallel business overseas and how Bajwa’s assets witnessed massive growth in no time. The story, startling in nature and demining for military circles, didn’t get space on news channels rather a TV channel termed Noorani as traitor and Indian agent while leading anchors, through their twitter handles, also doubted Noorani’s revelations. It was not surprising that the news did not made rounds as Bajwa himself is overlooking media affairs.
In the third week of July, Islamabad based senior journalist Matti Ullah Jan was abducted in broad day light by unidentified men from a busy street. Jan, known for coming hard on military and critical towards judiciary, was released twelve hours later after mounting pressure on social media. Just as dozens of other such stories remained off-air, Jan’s abduction also appealed none.
Renowned and veteran journalist Sohail Warraich’s Urdu book ‘Ye Company Nhi ChaleGi” (this company will not run) is a satirical take on ruling PTI’s governance style. The book underlines why PTI government is in limbo and the author predicts that the Khan led PTI cannot have acquaintance with the establishment and thus bound to fall in near future. The cover of the book had a cartoon depicting PM Khan sitting in the feet of COAS and playing with a balloon. Soon after the book was launched in market, the publisher had to pick it from all selling points amid unknown reasons. The author however, said that it is better to adjust the cover of the book and adjust all reservations as I want readers to have book read.
Considered as one of the pillars of state functionaries, media made inroads in Pakistan in early 2000s when the then President Pervez Musharraf allowed private channels to set up offices. In less than a decade, the media witnessed tremendous boom not only providing thousands of jobs but also initiating culture of debate in otherwise ‘controlled’ atmosphere. The spree went on until 2007 when media freedom was first curtailed after imposing emergency in the country. Pervez Musharraf banned several TV channels and tightened noose around media networks forcing many to comply in line with what is a greater ‘national interest’.
Desperate measures to put the media genie back in the bottle turned futile. Media had become resilient by then and played role in ousting one of the powerful rulers in Pakistan.
After Musharraf, Pakistan was lucky to have two consistent democratic regimes which, despite unbridled vile campaigns and at times factually incorrect reporting against the governments, tolerated media and didn’t restrain their rights. This made media fearless and it went to lengths in discussing range of topics except defence and security strategies.
Quite recently though, the media in Pakistan has once again come under consistent pressure by the government. Leading news channels went off-air, circulations of top newspapers disrupted, unusual delays or edits in print articles and stories, while many anti-establishment anchors were forced or they preferred to resign. The irony of the situation is that the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf(PTI) perhaps would not have been able to form government had the media not given all-out coverage to its 126 days long sit-in, political rallies and violent statements which it now cannot let go on-air. Furthermore, anchors who rendered PTI as the savior, now face censorship on many of subjects they want to cover, let alone ‘no go areas’. Consequently, Pakistan now ranked 145 out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index, six places lower than it was in 2018.
And guess what, the ruling government is not learning at all. List of instances that underline besieged press is quite long under the aegis of PM Khan‘s government, ranging from sedition charges on a former Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) Chairman to arrest and release of daily English newspaper news editor and a FIR against Islamabad based producer.
Curbing media freedom has ostensibly caused two major problems. There is hardly any space left for voice of dissent and healthy criticism. This has compelled many critical journalists to establish their own YouTube channels where they can express views more frantically. The absence of guest who can cross check details made them believe that their analysis stands paramount. Furthermore, curbing media has brought international shame for the country with many of global media watchdog voicing concerns over media freedom in Pakistan.
Secondly, junior media workers bear the brunt more in case channels downsize their staff or impose salary cuts after they face revenue shortfall. A number of social media accounts shared pictures and sob stories of media technicians who previously were employed in TV channels but are now doing menial jobs to make both ends meet.
Media’s self-imposed censorship e.g. not to air news about tycoons and departments that are source of revenue for them is another problem. Owners at times, either keep mum about certain issues fearing from revenue loss, or they run smear campaigns against opponents, putting fact-check behind.
Pakistan has had a tainted history with media censorship, military rulers and politicians alike imposing strict rules on what could be reported, often citing national security.
Healthy criticism doesn’t bring harm to the state rather it underpins loopholes in policymaking. In the past we have seen states that granted media freedom have done well than of the states who tried to take freedom away. Likewise, self-censorship can please a cult of ‘financers’ but it undermines quality content and balanced reporting. Attempts to threaten and muzzle media are destined to be ineffective. The world has changed, technology provides alternative ways e.g. Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and smartphones to access information. Pakistan, a nurturing democracy, cannot afford to suppress freedom of speech as the suppression cannot work for long.