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A new wave of censorship

Unlike the past, the media is not banned; the circulation of newspapers is blocked or tv channels are put off air. Had restrictions come under any black law one could have at least fought a legal battle. But, when it comes from ‘hidden sources’. What do you do?

A new wave of censorship

Are the days of ‘press in chains’ or ‘web of censorship’ gone? Or are they back in a different form?

The media has resisted and fought censorship for decades. The last such struggle lasted 88 days, after the November 3, 2007 emergency, when tv channels were ordered to go off air by the then military ruler. Now, however, the scenario is different, as even the government and the ministry of information is ‘clueless’ about the forces pressurising the media. If the Federal Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb can admit, “there is unprecedented censorship”, then who can a journalist turn to for relief in times of distress.

One may say it is failure of the government or challenge for the writ of the state or pity the government’s helplessness. But unquestionably in the last one year in particular the media has been under a different kind of pressure.

Last year, when I asked Marriyum Aurangzeb about the submission of a bill in the National Assembly by her ministry without her knowledge, she said, “Yes, it is true. I called the concerned officer to ask on whose instructions he had prepared the draft. He is now facing an inquiry and is under suspension”. The minister came to know about it when someone from the media informed her about the content of the bill that, if passed, would be worst than Ayub Khan’s Press and Publication Ordinance.

Likewise, in the Sindh Assembly, a bill of a similar nature was drafted about six months ago but due to timely intervention of the media bodies the Sindh Information Minister had to withdraw it from being presented before the parliamentary committee on information.

In another unprecedented development, Chairman Press Council of Pakistan (PCP) sent notice to the daily Dawn where it sought explanation from the paper for interviewing former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. This came amid reaction from other members of the Council that questioned the power of the Chairman from taking notice without the consent of other members.

Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English newspaper, is under pressure since the days of Dawn Leaks, and hawkers have been told to not distribute the paper in certain areas of the country.

Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra), an autonomous body, despite nomination of its chairman by the president and members by the government, has been under pressure for many years. Pemra is clueless how Geo went off air after the attack on senior journalist and host Capital Talk, Hamid Mir as no such instruction was issued to cable operators back in 2014.

The media has always resisted such forms of censorship to defend freedom of press and right to information. Sadly, the spirit to protect the media is missing today. Journalists are now asked, “Are you with us or against us”, and mostly their response is, “with you”, as the market forces have overpowered the right to information or freedom of press.

Although actions have been taken against other tv channels, at times from the ‘government side’, the case of Geo is unique because the ‘unknown quarters’ imposed the ban on the entire Geo network, not just the Geo News.

The courts often call Pemra officials for petitions filed by citizens on different accounts. What is amazing is that when Pemra takes action against any channel or anchor or show, the owners get a stay order issued from the courts. Presently, hundreds of such stay orders are pending in the courts.

The latest in the series of concerns about media censorship has been the unwritten instructions issued to print and electronic media on the coverage of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), which has emerged after the extrajudicial killing of young Naqeebullah Mehsud in Karachi. An ‘encounter specialist’ SSP Rao Anwar and his encounter squad was finally arrested and put on trial.

Many columnists and writers have complained that their articles were either dropped or they had been told not to write on the PTM. Here, again, instructions or ‘press advice’ did not come from the government, rather media-persons were told by their bosses not to cover the movement.

The media in Pakistan has also come under scrutiny in its coverage of anti-judiciary remarks. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz have criticised the judges that disqualified him for holding bias against him, and has of late coined a new term ‘Khalai Makhlook’ for the establishment. Now criticism of the judgement is one thing and remarks against a judge another; the latter falls in the category of contempt and liable. Therefore, tv channels should have been aware of this violation in the first place. As a late reaction, the media is now using the ‘mute’ option to censor controversial remarks against the judiciary — but only after the Lahore High Court (LHC) ordered that Pemra must ensure that no tv channels air any ‘anti-judiciary speeches’ in the future.

Where it’s problematic to tell them to downplay Nawaz’s and Maryam’s political narrative, the tv channels also must not deviate from good media practices.

Media in Balochistan has been facing pressure for years from state agencies, outlawed groups, sectarian and other terror networks. Media-persons have been threatened, attacked — and tragically killed. At least nine newspapers are facing charges under the Anti-Terrorism Act for publishing press releases of outlawed groups. No one is listening to their pleas that had they published them press releases under duress.

In this age of ‘unedited’ and ‘uncontrollable’ social media, it is easier than ever to publish fake news. This is creating problems for mainstream media that has developed a tendency to take such news as factual and accurate.

The government has failed to evolve a media policy or impose checks and balances on the industry. The media stakeholders are equally to be blamed for failing to check sensational news in the country.

Unlike the past, in this new wave of censorship, the media is not banned; the circulation of newspapers is blocked or tv channel are put off air or demoted to 70th or 80th position on the cable network to decrease ratings. Under constant pressure, proprietors, editors and reporters feel governed by their own self-censorship code. Had these restrictions come under any black law, one could have at least fought a legal battle. But, when it comes from ‘hidden sources’ or when you feel you are under surveillance, your mobile is not safe, what do you do?

The media has always resisted such forms of censorship to defend freedom of press and right to information. Sadly, the spirit to protect the media is missing today. Journalists are now asked, “Are you with us or against us”, and mostly their response is, “with you”, as the market forces have overpowered the right to information or freedom of press.

So, if Pakistan’s two strongest media houses are feeling the heat, imagine what the others are going through. With divisions in journalist bodies like PFUJ, which has a history of struggles against censorship, APNS, CPNE and PBA, political parties and civil society all confused, there is little hope for defenders of freedom of press.

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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