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Sounding the alarm

Pemra’s move to stop talk show anchors from going on other shows was clearly brazen, a testament to the new policy of the state

Sounding the alarm

If looked at in isolation, the partial retreat of Pakistan’s media watchdog from its latest controversial directive should instill a sense of achievement in the media.

In reality, a sense of achievement is the last thing the media should feel because this was not an isolated incident: the retreat – a partial one at that – comes after a series of successful authoritarian forays into the ideological heartland of media freedom over the last year or so.

Censorship isn’t at the gate; it’s well inside, and entrenched, in the fourth estate.

It is a case of 10 steps forward and one back for an increasingly bellicose state that has managed to capture space from Pakistan journalism in swift, clinical and incisive raids in what is a new and updated strategy in a decades-old struggle between estates. The new strategy is to not wage all-out war, but use isolated and limited conflict to take back space hard won by the media with spectacular ease. These raids have not been met with a collective and concerted response but instead shrugged off — given the limited scope of each move.

On October 27, Pakistan’s media watchdog issued a letter titled Directive – Discussions and Analysis on Sub-judice Matters. Hidden in the sweeping language in the two-page document was a point (6 d) that set off the backlash: Anchors of television news shows were not allowed to attend other television news shows – on their own channel or others – to give their analyses on current events.

The previous sentence took some writing, and rewriting, because there is no way of writing it without making it sound like a madcap demand. But that’s exactly what the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) directive was: madcap.

There was backlash from anchors, a powerful lobby when they band together, given their links to various centres of power in the country. So the Perma backed off – not retracting their letter, but casually stating that it was meant as

“advice” and not a “directive” (though the original letter stated that it was a “directive”).

The Islamabad High Court has since censured the Pemra over the matter. Chances are that this will be treated like an isolated issue, the Pemra will get a slap on the wrist, and with the restrictions lifted, the anchors, will move on.

Ultimately, the state might have backtracked slightly from a move that wasn’t as clinical as its previous forays. The move to stop anchors from going on other shows was clearly brazen.

However, there is a disturbing, but undeniable, reason for this bravado: the state overplayed its hand only because of the unprecedented success of its strategy. It is a testament to the success of the state’s new policy that it would attempt such a brazen maneuver.

In April 2019, the Pemra told television news channels that they had to take prior clearance from the ISPR when inviting a defence analyst who was a retired serviceman. An approved list was later released by the ISPR. It was laughed off and conceded without much fuss. That was a test incursion. It was successful.

The new strategy is to not wage all-out war, but use isolated and limited conflict to take back space won by the media with ease.

Then there came the advice on interviewing “fugitives”. The Pemra pontificated to the media that it was its moral responsibility to keep fugitives off the air because it was hurting the sentiments of viewers. Under this category fell former finance minister Ishaq Dar. That advice came just as the government and its supporters began to feel the heat of a faltering economy and the growing perception that there was no plan in place.

The Dar interview bar was met with a shrug by the media.

That advice then became a bar on playing or reporting any of his statements. That then became a bar on even playing any of his previous recent statements (given when he wasn’t a “fugitive”).

In its entirety, it was a swift raid shutting down an important critic also knew the ins and outs of the economy, for better or for worse, and that too at a time the current government was blaming everything on its predecessor – and Dar in particular. There was never such a bar on former president General (retd) Pervez Musharraf.

(On a side note, the other vocal critic of the current economic policies from the previous government, former finance minister Miftah Ismail, whose scathing columns in this very paper had ruffled more than a few feathers, has been arrested and his opinions are now off limits for media.)

An important fort captured in the fourth estate.

Then there was an advisory on interviews of “convicted” people – with the added caveat that they were off limits even if they had had their conviction suspended by a court of law. The obvious person falling in this newly-created category was Maryam Nawaz. That interview bar became a bar on running her statements at all (recordings as well as previous statements). This new advice on the media’s moral obligations came at a time when Maryam was gaining momentum with a political campaign fueled by a controversial video of a judge who had convicted her father. That bar eventually translated into a bar on showing any footage or images of her rallies (even without her audio). There was some grumbling, but ultimately concession from the media.

Another fort captured in the fourth estate.

Then there was an advisory against interviewing people facing charges in court – with the added caveat that even if not convicted, they’re in custody. It doesn’t matter if they’re officially out on parliament-sanctioned orders. Which then meant former president Asif Ali Zardari’s interview could be dramatically pulled off air within minutes of being aired. That came at a time when his PPP held the key votes in a Senate chairman no-confidence motion. There was a day of grumbling, but ultimately concession.

Another fort captured in the fourth estate.

Then there was general advice against speaking on under trial cases that translated into the Pemra cracking down on the questioning of the notorious accountability watchdog, the NAB. That came at a time when a controversial audio/video was leaked to the media of the NAB chairman ‘colorfully’ conversing with a woman facing NAB charges. Questions on that video translated into gag orders, fines and even the use of the word “seditious” against a show that simply recalled that the matter awaited investigation.

Another fort captured in the fourth estate.

Most of these swift raids were backed by innocuous advisories. Some official, others not. But no denials.

Then there was a pulling off of an interview of Maulana Fazlur Rehman just as he was beginning to turn up the political temperature. That move turned into a bar on covering his press conferences live. Fascinatingly, Prime Minister Imran Khan was asked about this, and he said there was no such advisory. The media then tried to interview Maulana after the PM’s assurance… but the ‘advice’ came again.

In the absence of Fazl on television screens, a few JUI-F leaders took a front seat on the media. One of them was Hafiz Hamdullah. Promptly, a Perma advisory/directive came to the fore proclaiming that Hafiz Hamdullah is an illegal “alien”. And aliens could not be given space on Pakistani media. The IHC has suspended this notification for the time being.

Of course, all of this works only in an environment where the media is under the cardinal obligation not to talk about being censored by quarters that cannot be named (even off air, and off the pages, journalist rights activists with valid visas face deportation upon landing in Pakistan). It’s simply put down to the Pemra rules and codes, the media’s moral obligations, or simply ‘advice’.

Scan the territory of the fourth estate today. It is mostly in control of state censorship. And it was done without breaking a sweat, without there being any all-out war.

This is the issue that needs to be addressed – and the united response by the anchors is the blueprint to go by. This is a small opening.

Now is the time to address the larger machination of the state currently in play: The fourth estate is being taken over, village by village.

Someone needs to work up the courage to sound the alarm.

Gibran Peshimam

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