As early as I can remember the 9o’ clock khabarnama at the Pakistan Television (PTV), its association with the fact that the content has always remained under the government’s control tags along stark and clear. To this day, the PTV is judged as simply the state’s spokesperson, with no independent analysis or delivery of news. So when among the earliest tabdeelis, it was announced that it will be released from the shackles of the state to run as an independent news channel, possibly on the lines of British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (which is not even remotely possible), it seemed like breaking news. However, irrespective of the fact that PTV is, at present, not entirely independent, the answer to whether private publications and news channels are, would be: Probably not.
Among discreet conversations, columns and other sources of information, a shadowy image looms, who is said to ‘dictate’ the content of each news channel’s bulletin headlines, to suit the state’s approved outlook. Naturally frustrated at the constant use of discretion, the upper tier of most news channels let their subordinates handle the process. Contributors to print media have often complained that some of their critical pieces have been excused from being printed by the editorial. Many editorial staff members have admitted of having to practise self censorship.
The curious case of the ‘missing persons’, including brazen activists and journalists, remains unsolved. And while such accusations can easily be dismissed as mere gossip, the latest report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) validates them when it expressed concern over increase in media curbs and held both government and agencies responsible for the situation.
Only recently, a local court withdraws arrest warrants issued against a prominent journalist and orders travel restrictions on him to be removed, as hearings in a treason case against him and two former prime ministers continue. The nature of the case itself has been highly protested against, since in defence it has been argued that the journalist was only reporting, or in other words, just doing his job. Meanwhile, journalists and media workers rally across the country to protest against downsizing and measures aimed at curbing newspapers circulation and TV channels’ transmission.
The Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE) has also showed its concern and called upon the government to consult editors, journalists, publishers and other stakeholders before carrying out legislation on any media law. This was a reaction to Federal Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry’s hint at the formation of a ‘Pakistan media regulatory authority’ to replace the Pemra (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) and the Press Council.
So in Pakistan, freedom of press seems like a thing of the past.
When we talk of the past, in Pakistan’s history of curbs imposed on media, the spirit of defiance and revolution did occasionally seem to spring its head. During the Zia regime, Mehtab Rashidi famously refused to cover her head with a scarf for the news bulletin and over the dispute, preferred to resign. In 1953, the then editor of Dawn, Altaf Husain, became so frustrated over press censorship that in one edition he left blank the space for the editorial, with a note written in his own handwriting:
“When the truth cannot be freely spoken and patriotism is held almost a crime, this editorial space is left blank on Quaid e Azam’s birthday to speak more eloquently than words”.
Years later, in a recent example among many others, the Pakistani copy of The New York Times (NYT) similarly carried a blank column in its Op-ed section in place of an article ‘Why Muslims slaughter animals for God?’ published in the original edition. This time, there was a printed note at the bottom, which was a disclaimer by the NYT editorial saying it had no role in the removal of the piece by its Pakistani alliance. Even the columnist, Turkish writer Mustupha Akyol could not help expressing his bewilderment in a tweet over the omission. The act was not due to any inspiration from the 50s Dawn editorial or any other form of protest, rather it was another example of censorship in the print media and a proof of our intolerant society.
And while we debate and worry in Pakistan about the fleeting freedom of press, it may be enlightening to know that we are part of a global trend. The Economist reports that ‘across the world, freedom of the press is atrophying’. According to scores compiled by Freedom House, a think-tank, the muzzling of journalists and independent news media is at its worst point in 13 years.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the number of journalists jailed for their work is at the highest level since the 1990s’.The report reveals that this deteriorating situation is being witnessed in countries like Russia, where ‘Vladimir Putin has so thoroughly throttled the Russian media that Freedom House’s scorers rated Venezuela freer’, where presidencies of Hugo Chavez and Nicholas Marduro have ‘utterly corroded the Venezuelan press’. In Turkey, President Erdogan is blamed for suppressing civil liberties and being ‘the world’s leader in jailing journalists’.
In the United States, although Donald Trump has frequently demonised the news media as the ‘enemy of the people’, America’s strong First Amendment and independent courts have prevented him from acting on these illiberal outbursts. In fact, The Boston Globe fittingly replied Trump by printing on one of its front pages last month ‘Journalists are not the enemy’! The Washington Post still prints under its masthead ‘Democracy dies in darkness’.
Perhaps surprisingly, Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban regime and Tunisia after the Arab Spring toppling President Ben Ali, have made steady progress in press liberalisation and rapidly expanded press protections, respectively.
But we need not look that far for comparison. Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a watchdog, reported this May that our next door neighbour India’s ranking in the Press Freedom Index has fallen two places to 138 in a ranking of 180 countries. RSF ranks Norway as the world’s freest press for the second year in a row, while North Korea remains the most repressive country followed by Eritrea, Turkmenistan, Syria and then China. In India, the watchdog report blamed ‘physical violence’ against journalists like Gauri Lankesh as the key reason behind the country’s low ranking, with a warning that hate crime is another reason plaguing the country.
So Pakistan has two diverse situations to choose from. Either to join the bandwagon of increasing curbs on freedom of speech in the name of patriotism and promoting outlooks which suit an agenda, or to let go of checks and monitor and try the outcome when every opinion is open for comment. In the other scenario, people would decide themselves which news is anti-state and which is not. At least, they would know what happened to the Pashteen movement. They would know why a person went ‘missing’. They would know what is the truth behind allegations of rigging in this year’s elections.
We already know. For the time being, we choose silence to be more eloquent than words. Only, the silence speaks volumes.