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Getting petty with the press

The new government seems intent on punishing certain media groups

Getting petty with the press

Dear All,

We probably all remember some episode from our childhood whereby we might have rescinded an invitation out of pique or anger. You know — the sort of episode in which you perhaps ‘uninvited’ a classmate to your birthday party because of a playground squabble or else maybe insisted on snubbing somebody thus because you’d had a hurtful falling out…

This very ‘you’re-not-invited-to-my-party’ approach seems to have been adopted by the new government. When the PM visited Karachi last Sunday and met media representatives at the Governor House, two media groups were conspicuous by their absence: Dawn and Geo/Jang.

Journalists at Dawn say they had, initially, been invited by Governor House officials to the meeting with the PM but then they were contacted and informed that well, err… their invitation had been withdrawn.

Editors at The News say they were simply not invited to the event. Geo it seems is still something of a bête noir with our new PM who seems unable to forgive this channel for a number of things. An anchor from a rival channel (ARY) recently posted a clip of Imran Khan praising that channel and speaking very ill of Geo and its owner. Khan’s take seemed to be that the group was definitely not doing journalism, just furthering their own business (not unusual for media houses one would think…). Even though he might not have made any more such statements since becoming PM, the exclusion of this group as well as Dawn certainly indicates that various grudges continue to be held.

It appears that Dawn, the country’s oldest and most well established English daily is still out of favour with ‘the powers that be.’ A bizarre episode known rather frivolously as ‘Dawn Leaks’ has ensured that Dawn continues to be banned in most cantonments and is the object of criticism and abuse by various ultra ‘patriotic’, right-wing elements. The paper which was put on the defensive by the military establishment is now being portrayed by these same critics, on media and social media as being ‘anti PTI’.

All media groups and publications have biases and are either left or right leaning — nothing new there. But their journalists work within those parameters, and are able to produce reporting and analysis of a high standard which is often (though not always) in the public interest. News organisations should not be punished simply for not agreeing with or criticising the government. If the Karachi ‘uniniviting/not inviting’ incident is an indicator of the PTI’s media policy then it is depressingly reminiscent of the tone of the US President Donald Trump and disturbingly similar to that of the state of Israel.

Some years ago Israel was so annoyed by the BBC’s reporting of the region that it began to exclude its reporters from all government briefings and functions. Cutting off these journalists from information and briefings and denying them access to official sources crippled their reporting by, basically, banishing them from the beat. Israel also went on the offensive by accusing the corporation of ‘bias’ and challenging any number of its reports and demanding all sorts of enquiries. The BBC was forced to go on the defensive and was eventually so browbeaten that today the Israel-Palestine conflict hardly features in its newsroom agenda, and when it does the tone is always highly mindful of possible Israeli wrath.

So are these the tactics that the PTI government now plans to use to bring the media ‘into line’? This bullying-boycotting approach is (as we see in the BBC case) rather effective, and many of the same sort of tactics have been used by President Trump, who declared war on old well-respected news outlets like the New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN by declaring them all his enemies, peddling ‘fake news’.

The ‘uninviting’ episode in Karachi should ring alarm bells for all of us with any interest in Pakistan who think that freedom of expression and media independence is essential in a democratic and progressive society. A number of recent reports (notably those by HRCP and CPJ) have already documented the tactics that are being used to intimidate and silence journalists and news organisations, and last week a report by the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER) also highlighted the fact that along with restrictions on their reporting, journalists also face threats and many serious repercussions if they report on particular subjects or criticise certain institutions or individuals.

This government might do well to remember that is not the school playground where you put your hands over your ears and make a lot of noise to drown out the words you don’t want to hear or gloat over how you have snubbed somebody by not inviting them to your party. The government has a responsibility to encourage a free and responsible media and undermining prestigious news outlets because they have been critical of you is not a great policy…

As they say on twitter: #JournalismIsNotACrime

Best wishes

Umber Khairi

umber
The author is a former BBC broadcaster and producer, and one of the founding editors of Newsline.

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