Last week, Pakistan abruptly shut down its 40-plus 24/7 news and current affairs tv channels and a large segment of the most popular social media, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, cutting them off from over half of its 200 million people who use both these offline and online mediums to access information on a daily basis.
The step — criticised and protested widely by media and civil society — was undone within 30 hours and now finds itself challenged in the courts.
The ban on tv coverage and information blackout came just as a police crackdown unfolded in Faizabad upon a rightwing religious group with newfound but growing political ambitions that had cut off traffic on the principal point between Islamabad and Rawalpindi for 20 days.
The enforced media and information blackout was troubling on several counts. One, freedom of information (Article 19) and access to information (Article 19A) are separate fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution, and the government breached these guarantees. This way the government and media regulator Pemra punished 200 million citizens, not just a few dozen mainstream media and social media outlets. This is simply unacceptable.
Second, the government and the media regulator Pemra are guilty of enforcing collective punishment when the media had not yet failed its responsibilities. This act in itself was illegal being pre-emptory in nature when the laws, including Pemra law, don’t allow it. Third, the government failed to convey its special needs on sensitivities of coverage before the ban. A six-page, 27-clause guideline on media coverage of the crackdown came after the crackdown and after the enforced blackout, not before! This is mala fide in nature — the government cannot punish others for its own ineptitude.
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Fourth, for two days when the operation was underway and when protests spread everywhere, the government held no regular press conferences (except a brief one by Ahsan Iqbal) and no information handouts were issued. If it was banning the media for presumptuous untruths where were the government truths? The absence of information ensured that rumours exploded across the country and defeated the very purpose of the media ban in the first place. This is poor policy.
The controversial and illegal nature of the media ban aside, the text must be put in context as it is a much more complex issue. In recent years, the cacophonous tv media in the country is guilty of professional inadequacies. It has come to increasingly surrender its primary function of being the guardian of public interest by settling into a more comfortable — and profitable — position of representing oversimplified and restrictive viewpoints about politics and religion that are patently anti-democratic.
The alternative viewpoints accommodated are filtered through security and religious lens. The discernible impact of this has been a general caricaturisation of parliament, politics and democracy, and a general distrust of inclusivity and pluralism that has increased the trust deficit between the citizen and the state. Opinions have replaced news and views have substituted analysis.
This explains the beleaguered government’s knee-jerk decision of enforcing the ban on the pretext of security operations not being eligible for live coverage. Ironically, a meeting between the prime minister and army chief resulted in news reports that attributed the latter as not agreeing with the media ban by the former as being the right decision.
But there is a newer reality at play here that is not widely acknowledged yet. Religions themselves are exclusionary in nature but when religious zeal fuses with political objectives, freedom of expression veers into hate speech. This is partly a function of self-righteousness aimed at keeping the flock of devotees together. But in Pakistan’s current political context of upcoming elections, it is also a mechanism to negotiate the fierce political competition to garner votes by playing up the bogey of the imagined demon of secularism, which the fringe religious groups equate with ‘western democracy.’
Media finds itself an accessory to fuelling the burgeoning narrative of intolerance because they neither have the professional skills nor the inclination to differentiate in their coverage between the political nature of the protests and the extreme religious narrative employed to push the political objectives.
The interface where religion and politics meet in Pakistan is increasingly being defined by a coarser narrative employed by a new lot of fringe religious groups that harbour mainstream political ambitions. Groups like Tehreek-e-Labbaik and Milli Muslim League, with their aggressive sectarian and jihadi roots, have their eyes on the 2018 general elections. They are also clearly supported by the security establishment as part of the ‘mainstreaming’ strategy.
Their newer, cruder — and increasingly popular — religiously-tinged political narrative, which has been big on social media but is now finding itself increasingly acceptable to the more ubiquitous television media, has sidelined the exhausted diction employed by the mainstream religio-political parties, such as Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema Islam. These parties are already part of the political elite and governance systems but are restrained by the necessity of a rightwing but relatively tempered narrative.
In this way, the Pakistani media finds itself also running afoul of the stated objectives of the National Action Plan and even the State’s own failures in implementing it. The Plan’s Objective #11 says, “Print and electronic media will not be allowed to give any space to terrorists” and its Objective #14 says, “Social media and the Internet will not be allowed to be used by terrorists to spread propaganda and hate speech.”
So, if hate speech is spewed in the garb of freedom of expression and even security authorities serve as guarantors of controversial agreements between fringe groups that spew this hate speech and the elected government, thereby establishing these groups as stakeholders in the power structure, how can the media be banned for giving them a spotlight?
It’s not what’s wrong with the media — albeit there are many things wrong with it, including serious professional deficiencies — but rather what’s wrong with the state’s contradictory policies that require an examination and accountability. And that examination can only happen when the media is not banned.