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The roots of disinformation

Disinforming people or keeping them ill-informed has been one of the key tactics of the State

The roots of disinformation

Pakistan is at a crossroads, so is its media industry. Since independence, the ruling elites have proceeded to restore the feudal style of politics with which they were accustomed. No wonder, the laws that had been governing the press during the pre-independence era found their way into the policies of the newly independent and sovereign country.

The colonial structure of the Constitutional system was based on the Government of India Act 1935 and the Independence Act of 1947, which contained Section 18, allowing the continued application of the laws, rules and regulations created before 1947. The corpus includes Press (Emergency Powers) Act 1931, the States (Protection against Disaffection) Act 1922, the Code of Criminal Procedure of 1898 and the Penal Code of 1860 and many more. Over the past 72 years, except for the Newspapers Employees (Conditions of Service) Act 1973, only anti-press laws have been adopted by successive civilian and military governments.

Governments also misused the term ‘reasonable restrictions’ provided in Article 19 of the Constitution. In fact, these black laws should have been abolished to end the suppression of freedom of the press as guaranteed under Article 19. By keeping these laws intact and by introducing more anti-press laws, successive governments violated the very foundation of the said article, which guarantees ‘freedom of the press’.

Keeping people disinformed or misinformed has remained one of the enduring practices of the State. Notice that the controversy regarding an attempt to distort the August 11, 1947 speech of the Founder of the Nation remains unresolved. What a pity that the State should deny having record of the proceedings of the first Constituent Assembly. It comes as no surprise since the elites always wanted to keep the people in the dark. Former Radio Pakistan managing director, Murtaza Solangi, tried his best to track the original audio of the Quaid’s historic speech in the Constituent Assembly, but failed.

During the days of MQM, newsrooms received threats regarding placement of news, and used the Staff Report credit line on press releases. Daily Jang once faced a complete boycott and its distribution was not allowed just because it published the wedding photograph of then Karachi mayor, Dr Farooq Sattar, in a ‘measly two columns’ space on its front page.

News about the investigation of the assassination of the first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was also suppressed. Some editors of those times used to say there was pressure on them not to ‘cross a red line’.

In 1949, one of the most established and respected newspapers, Civil and Military Gazette, was chastised for carrying a report regarding division of Kashmir. Next day, the paper published an apology and sacked its reporter.  But the authorities which already considered the paper as too critical of its policies used editors of some other newspapers to demand a ban on the paper, and for the first and the last time a ‘joint editorial’ was published in 16 newspapers in support of the government action leading to the death of a newspaper.

These editors, perhaps, never thought that their support allowed the government to adopt such a policy. Years later, the government took over Progressive Papers Limited, which The Pakistan Times, Morning News, Imroze and Mashriq. From 1959 till the closure of these newspapers, successive governments used the National Press Trust to spread disinformation.

The so-called independent newspapers were subject to ‘Press Advice’. People were kept in the dark about actual facts of many important events, particularly those linked to national security and foreign affairs. There were times when the restrictions extended to reporting of political developments.

That truth is the first casualty in a war is recognised all over the world. Unfortunately, governments in Pakistan operated on a war footing even during times of peace.

The purpose of all these laws and policies was one – to hide facts from the public and therefore journalists. Editors refusing to toe the official line were put behind bars and newspapers failing to parrot the state narrative were banned.

Killing or suppressing news is denying the citizens’ right to information while deliberately distorting or twisting facts to mislead people is called disinformation. A Ministry of Information was created soon after Independence to supervise both these jobs. Through it governments controlled the media.

A scrutiny of the record of the Ministry of Information and of its secret fund (which was abolished by the Supreme Court in 2012, in Hamid Mir and others vs Federation), shows just how military as well as civilian regimes used these to spread disinformation. For decades governments controlled newspaper advertisements, and used these to manipulate ‘good media and bad media’. For years, they used ‘journalists and columnists’ writing under pen names to support government policies. Every political party promised in its manifesto to abolish this ministry but each ‘used’ it for its own interests and to misinform the people.

Through this ministry the rulers used both carrot and stick to ‘please’ and ‘pressure’ the media. Even before the first martial law was imposed in 1958, the government used the deputy commissioners to gag the press. Even news about journalist unions was suppressed. In the first 10 years of Pakistan’s independence, the policy to suppress the press was blamed on its strong bureaucracy.

Dissenting voices were treated as ‘anti-Pakistan’ or labelled as ‘communists’. This received corroboration from some former bureaucrats, including Roedad Khan, who belonged to the first batch of the post-independence civil service (1949). “It is true that since Independence we never gave freedom to the press, and I am witness to many confidential meetings and decisions that aimed to crush the press,” he once told me. Khan had been part of the bureaucratic set up from the days of Ayub Khan to General Zia ul Haq. “I could say with some authority that the ruling elite didn’t like ‘free press’,” he said.

Former federal information secretary, Anwar Mahmood claims that General Pervez Musharraf’s era was different. He points out that during his regime private TV channels were allowed although during his last year in office, he imposed a ban on channels and suppressed the press freedom.

A quote of the late M H Dean, a former news editor of The Star, was published in the KUJ Souvenir on its 25th anniversary: “It was 1967. An information officer dialled a number and asked for the editor. After usual greetings, he told the editor that he must have received the story of Bhutto’s press conference, which he held at his Clifton residence. ‘Don’t play it up. Tuck it away somewhere in the inside pages. After all, Bhutto is not important now.’ By evening all newspapers had received this advice.”

I had the privilege of working with Dean in The Star, and I know the kind of telephone calls he used to receive every day from the office of Sindh Information Department and the Press Information Department.

I joined this profession in 1981, and still recall how an ‘information officer’ used to tell us or the editor what to publish and what not to publish. Later, they even used to say where in the paper the news should be placed.

Years later, other pressure groups adopted the same tactic. During the days of MQM, newsrooms received threats regarding placement of news, and used the Staff Report credit line on press releases. Daily Jang once faced a complete boycott and distribution was not allowed because it published the wedding photograph of then Karachi mayor, Dr Farooq Sattar, in a ‘measly two columns‘ space on its front page. Other pressure groups and sectarian outfits like the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e- Mohammad and others used similar methods.

Nothing has changed much except that now news directors or heads of TV channels also receive such calls. For instance, when there was a media blackout of rallies and public gatherings by Maryam Nawaz or the media coverage of Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement.

During the days of no independent TV, governments used to stop advertisements for papers that did not toe their line. Now they not only block ads but also force TV channels off air without even following the rules.

The press in the then West Pakistan was guilty of not reporting factual news during 1970-1971 – from elections to military operation. This, in the end, led to war and break-up of the country. However, newspapers in the then East Pakistan gave reasonable coverage to political developments as there was massive support for the Awami League. The editors told the authorities that if they did not do so, press could face people’s reaction.

However, after March 1971, it became difficult for newspapers in the then East Pakistan to print all news. Papers like Morning News and People’s Daily faced unprecedented pressures and were eventually being closed.

“All is well and we are winning” kind of stories were planted to distort facts till 16 December 1971, when the BBC broke the news of ‘surrender’. In West Pakistan the newspaper headlines were different. Next day, Dawn printed a small news item, released by the ISPR, about the country’s most tragic incident.

The people have been kept in the dark about the facts of the 1988 Zia plane crash in which a number of senior Pakistani generals and the US ambassador were killed. Facts were also hidden about the Ojhri Camp disaster.

Also read: My news feed versus your news feed

The irony is that civilian governments have not only followed the policy of suppression but also made laws to further tighten their grip on media.

Freedom is and must be our cherished destiny because without it the media cannot perform its duties adequately. A responsible media cannot come into being unless and until media is allowed the freedom keep people informed.

While I was writing this piece, I received the good news that the Lahore High Court had ordered the lifting of the ban imposed by PEMRA on analyst, Hafeezullah Niazi of GEO News’ show, Report Card. He was banned on all TV channels for one month for his remarks against a federal minister. Niazi sahib had challenged the ban as a violation of Article 19 of the Constitution.

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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