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Why is media still not free?

A more ‘divided house’ than ever before, media faces immense pressure from state and non-state operators

Why is media still not free?

Since independence, the ruling elite has kept the feudal style of politics intact which they were used to. Therefore, laws governing the press in pre-independence era found their way into the body politic of the newly independent and sovereign country. Thus, freedom of the press and freedom of expression are more of a myth than reality.

The colonial-style structure of the constitutional system was based on the 1935 Act and the Independence Act 1947, which contained Section 18, allowing continuity of the laws and regulations created before 1947. This corpus included laws such as Press (Emergency Powers) Act of 1931, the State (Protection against Disaffection) Act of 1922, the Code of Criminal Procedure 1898 and the Penal Code of 1860.

As a consequence, media continued to receive the same treatment from successive governments after independence to which they were subjected before it and as a result democracy could not take its root in Pakistan. The country has been directly ruled for almost 35 years by military regimes. Even the record of civilian governments is not as good as it should have been. In fact, during the civilian PPP’s government from 1972 to 1977, anti-press laws were used to gag the press.

It is worth mentioning here that most of the laws curbing free speech and press freedom were invoked when the authorities felt threatened by civil liberties. Political rationale lay behind the regressive laws though various reasons were put forward by rulers.

From Press and Publication Ordinance 1960 to Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) 2002, the state has never come out with a vision to ensure freedom of the press, freedom of expression and freedom of speech till this day. Only two months back, attempts were made both at the federal and Sindh level to introduce laws which could put strict restrictions on publications of books. Had these bills been presented and passed by the parliament and assemblies, it would have imposed serious restrictions on media and freedom of expression. Thanks to PFUJ and senior journalists, both the governments withheld the move and agreed to discuss it with all the stakeholders.

Successive governments have used a two-pronged policy to ‘control’ the Press: one, punishment through anti-Press laws; and two, corrupting them by doling out both cash and kind. The Ministry of Information has from day one followed this policy. They control government advertisements, use it both as ‘carrot and stick’, and through secret fund.

Today, media challenges are far more difficult than in the past, when at least you knew under what law the newspaper had been closed or journalist arrested. But, now a channel is suddenly put ‘off air’, without even the knowledge of a ‘regulator’ or the government. If the cable operators are told by ‘unknown persons’ not to air this channel or that, and hawkers told not to distribute this newspaper or that, it is really worrisome.

Now a channel is suddenly put ‘off air’, without even the knowledge of a ‘regulator’ or the government. If the cable operators are told by ‘unknown persons’ not to air this channel or that, and hawkers told not to distribute this newspaper or that, it is really worrisome.

All this is happening in the so-called era of ‘free media’. Unlawful actions are taken by unknown sources to curb media. Impunity in murder cases of journalists is a serious challenge.

Rising threats to media houses and journalists often go unnoticed. Balochistan is in itself a case study where freedom of the press and journalism in general is a casualty. Nine newspapers are facing cases under Anti-Terrorism Act while journalists are not free, either to report or write without any fear.

Neither the Ministry of Interior nor the Ministry of Information knows what’s happening. PEMRA claims to have no knowledge nor are cable operators ready to disclose and yet people say, ‘Geo is off air’. In the recent past even DAWN newspaper has had complaints about obstruction in newspaper distribution in certain areas.

If some channel or newspaper has done something wrong or unlawful, why not take a legal course against them. In 2007, when emergency was imposed and all Geo channels were put off air, it was not in the knowledge of PEMRA.

Another challenge for today’s media is the rising division within the media. Differences are getting sharp and media industry is completely divided in the fight against curbs on freedom of the press and people’s right to know. Though there are different unions, thousands of media workers are facing acute financial problems. There is a struggle for survival and journalists are becoming vulnerable to forces of darkness and corruption.

There are still dozens of laws that only restrict freedom of the press, but for journalists, the punishments can be much harsher, especially in the presence of the Official Secret Act, Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance, Ant-Terrorism Act and PEMRA; these are laws that are in conflict with the right to freedom of information and expression.

Moreover, laws regulating the supply of inputs to the newspaper industry such as Newspaper Ordinance and relevant section of Custom Act, beside the Audit Bureau of Circulation and the power over the release of government advertisements, also serve to indirectly control the media.

Media reflects the ideas and aspirations of people. It is considered by many as the ‘fourth pillar of the state’, critical to the efficient functioning of the other three ‘pillars’, and the defence of democratic values, including the right to voice dissent.

Journalism in the last 15 years has become ‘hostage’ to corporate culture and ratings, which has exerted extra pressure on working journalists, programme anchors. As a result, they cater more to market requirements rather than journalistic considerations.

Pakistani media, which is now a more ‘divided house’ than ever before, faces immense pressure from the state and non-state operators. Cable-operators just need a ‘phone call’ to put your channel off air, change its number without following any rules or regulation. All this does not require PEMRA’s legal sanctions.

Under the law, cable-operators are not supposed to change any channel’s placement or number or stop the broadcast of any channel without the consent of their subscribers.

Truth is that media cannot protect its own employees. Over 85 per cent journalists and media workers don’t even have ‘employment letter’, and 90 per cent of those who have been killed worked on part-time basis without any life and job security.

There are serious ethical questions over the kind of journalism we are promoting and practising. The question is how much should a journalist compromise or succumb to under the pressure of ratings. Corporate culture was welcome if it did not corrupt media industry by compromising its professional standards. This is a global phenomena and a challenge for media the world over.

Freedom is, and must remain, our cherished destiny because without it the media cannot perform its duties adequately. A responsible press cannot come into being until it is allowed self-regulation and freedom from executive interference. All of us must unite, rebuild the institution of the professional editor and act more responsibly than ever before if we are to achieve this goal.

Four basic guiding codes for the media could be: (1) That media, whatever the mode of dissemination, is independent, tolerant and reflects diversity of opinion, enabling full democratic exchange within and among all communities, whether based on geography, ethnic origin, religious belief and language; (2) Laws that defend and protect the rights of journalists and all citizens to freedom of information and right to know; (3) Journalism is a public trust and its responsibility is to inform the people with accuracy — to give information based on facts and not fiction. A journalist should not become part of the story and media should not become part of the conflict or intolerance; (4) The growth of media and its effectiveness makes it essential that all the media stakeholders develop a code of conduct without which they cannot act responsibly.

We are living in an era of ‘fake news’, ‘manipulated news’, ‘propaganda news’, ‘planted news’, ‘agenda settings’. The phenomenon is not confined to Pakistan. I always believe that gone are the days when we used to have editors with high moral and professional integrity. Yes, there are still few who ‘stand’ and protect their reporters, if his or her story is based on facts but they have faced threats and pressure.

Media can only fight these challenges with unity, which in itself is a big challenge for bodies like APNS, CPNE, PBA, PFUJ and APNEC. Can they unite for a common cause?

Mazhar Abbas

mazhar abbas
The author is a senior journalist and former secretary general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists.

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