Muzzling the media

Free media is a prerequisite for any democratic country but the media in Pakistan is facing the worst kind of censorship. I joined journalism back in 2005. There was censorship back then as well, which got worse during emergency but even then we could fight back to a certain extent. But now there is another sort of pressure on the media. Journalists may not be ‘killed’ anymore but they are either ‘picked up’ and given a ‘message’ or the same message is given by beating up journalists or threatening them.

Just last month, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) published a damning report on the state of the media in Pakistan. It said that journalists “painted a picture of a media under siege”. The report further said: “The military has quietly, but effectively, set restrictions on reporting: from barring access to regions … to encouraging self-censorship through direct and indirect methods of intimidation, including calling editors to complain about coverage and even allegedly instigating violence against reporters.”

The CPJ report is not off the mark. In the past, journalists were threatened directly or indirectly but now the orders come from the top bosses, i.e. media owners, not to cross a certain red line. Professional journalists know how to sustain pressure and find subtle ways of expressing their opinion without being too direct and yet still saying what they mean but most media owners – especially the new breed of media owners who have no journalistic background – are not able to sustain such pressure because at the end of the day, they are just businessmen who would not want their business affected. Jang/Geo group faced a lot of pressure in the past few years by the establishment and judiciary. Now the new whipping boy is Dawn media group.

We have seen channels practicing started self-censorship by muting speeches, guests on television shows, etc. There are of course other ways of putting pressure, especially through the judiciary. While all this is not new, there is a new, far more dangerous way: fake and/or negative campaign on social media to dent the credibility of journalists. In recent months, we have seen how social media campaigns have been run against credible journalists like Asma Shirazi and Saleem Safi only because their opinions were not in line with what those at the helm of the affairs wanted them to be. Such fake and negative social media campaigns are run to hurt the credibility of journalists. It also takes a mental toll on the journalists who are on the receiving end of such ugly campaigns.

There are new ways of harassing journalists as well. Registering FIRs against them through unknown people on flimsy charges or filing petitions against them. We just saw two such cases last week.

One: arrest warrants for Dawn’s Cyril Almeida for not appearing before a court and asking the authorities to put him on the Exit Control List (ECL). While Mr Almeida is no stranger to such intimidating tactics – after all, his life was made extremely difficult during the entire Dawn Leaks fiasco – this recent incident is once again a clear reminder to those who do not toe a certain line.

Two: we saw an FIR being registered against journalists Najam Sethi and Muneeb Farooq, apart from Jang group owner Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman and former PEMRA chief Absar Alam.

Both these incidents show that the powers-that-be have found new ways of silencing dissent. Those who toe the line of the powers-that-be are given such leeway that they can even get away with inciting violence against others but journalists who report objectively are punished for doing their job. This is plain and simple intimidation. When a journalist has to look over his/her shoulder every time he/she says or writes something that does not go down well with the power elite, it should really be worrisome for each and every person associated with the media industry in Pakistan regardless of political ideologies. Unfortunately, there is hardly any unity within the media fraternity.

When senior journalist Hamid Mir was almost assassinated, we saw the cracks in the media industry come out in the open. Apart from a few honourable exceptions, everybody joined the bandwagon trying to lynch the Jang/Geo group in the aftermath of the attack. From commercial interests to bending over backwards to please the establishment, the media community in Pakistan is divided and how! This isn’t just limited to our media.

Politically, Pakistani society has never been so polarised. Political arguments get heated and downright ugly with not just acquaintances but with close friends and family members as well. This entire PTI vs PML-N debate is reminiscent of George W. Bush’s ‘you’re either with us or against us’ mantra. If you criticise the PTI, you must be a supporter of ‘corrupt’ leaders. If you criticise the military establishment, you must be an ‘Indian agent’ and/or ‘anti-national’. If you criticise the judiciary, you must be a ‘khooni liberal’. If you raise your voice for the Ahmadis or other minorities, you must be working on a ‘western agenda’. And the list goes on.

It is sad to see Pakistan go down this road of destruction. We are destroying the future of our next generations by encouraging this intolerant behavior. Dissent is our right. Freedom of expression is enshrined in our constitution. We cannot bow before fear. It will only strengthen the bullies. If we want to safeguard the future of this nation, we must stand up to power and speak the truth and nothing but the truth. This is our national duty.

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