Things are not normal for independent media in this country. Journalists in particular are feeling the pressure as their write-ups are either being withheld or edited for reasons other than ‘professional work’. Why are newspapers forced to cut down their pages including their opinion page if things are normal and democracy functional? Why are channels going ‘off air’ without even the knowledge of PEMRA or Information Ministry? What new laws are on the anvil to ‘regulate’ media? What new tactic is being adopted to exert pressure on ‘dissent’?
With up to 20,000 workers, why does the media looks so weak today compared to the past when they were numerically much less but strong in commitment?
Old tactics have changed. They now have been replaced by new ones where professionalism will die a natural death and media houses will be financially crippled. The worst victim of the present crisis would be ‘truth’ besides journalists, media workers and journalism as a profession.
Journalism was not a well-paid profession until 2001. Only people with a political outlook and commitment joined it as a passion. Since they had strong conviction and skill, they survived. They were not very ambitious either. Majority of them came from lower middle class or middle class backgrounds but they followed strong ethics in their writings. They also knew the art of writing between-the-lines during the worst kinds of censorship. Even the government Information Officer found it difficult to understand their writing when it went through censorship process.
Those journalists may have been economically or financially weak but they were morally and ethically strong enough to stand up against any ruler, military or civilian. They never claimed ‘concession’ for journalists as a right. It is the other way round now; there are anchors and media people on top positions who are paid even more than the top executives of a multinational company. But the majority of media workers are still not well paid.
The Ministry of Information was created in the early 1950s to ensure a pro-government coverage for which a ‘secret fund’ was created to corrupt newspapers and journalists. This fund was directly controlled by the Secretary Information and the minister concerned had nothing to do with it. If the government transferred a secretary, he would hand over the ‘key’ to where the money was kept to his successor.
This fund was expanded during Ayub Khan’s government and has been used by all subsequent governments till journalist Hamid Mir, Absar Alam and co-petitioners like this scribe and Asma Sherazi filed petitions in the Supreme Court and offered themselves for accountability after a controversial list was published.
Two of the three lists of journalists who received money from this fund were submitted while the third was termed ‘confidential’ and was not handed over to the Supreme Court. The fund has finally been abolished but the ministry still exists.
There was a time when trade unions were strong enough to protest both against the government for freedom of the press and against media houses for better economic conditions. The Wage Board Award was the result of a long struggle.
Every government has suppressed free media and dissenting voices in its own way. From 1948 to 1988, in the first 40 years, some well-known newspapers and magazines were forcibly closed and others were discredited after government takeover through Press and Publication Ordinance, 1960, by establishing the National Press Trust. They took control of reputed papers like Pakistan Times, Morning News, Imroz and Mashriq. Thus, the voice of dissent shrank considerably and many independent journalists either quit or were sacked by the management.
During the East Pakistan crisis in the 1970s, truth became a casualty as independent voices were either curtailed or their articles were not published. People were kept ignorant of the ground situation during the country’s biggest tragedy.
When the first elected government came to power and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) became the prime minister, he promised to ensure freedom of press, abolish Press and Publication Ordinance and take measures for job security of journalists and media workers. Unfortunately, press, particularly the right wing media and journalists, faced hardship. Even moderate voices and hardline left wing journalists were sent to prison for dissent, for instance people like Husain Naqi.
But ZAB did initiate legislation to protect worker’s rights through Newspapers Employees Condition for Services Act, 1973. It provided major a legal remedy to workers through which they also got Wage Board Award.
So, journalists and workers unions got new life and strength. Therefore, when Gen. Zia banned newspapers and brought censorship against Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), which was the sole representative body till the 1970s, it launched one of the most historic movement for almost 45 days, during which journalists and workers ‘courted arrest’ in Karachi and Lahore.
In the process came the first major split in PFUJ as one group termed the movement political and created their own group. The then Secretary Information, late Lt. General Mujeeb and late Information Minister Mahmood Azam Farooqui also tried to break journalists’ unity.
The unions still remained strong. Thus, the government of Mohammad Khan Junejo announced abolishing Press and Publication Ordinance 1969, which was replaced by another law. All curbs on seeking declaration of publishing newspapers were withdrawn.
There were still laws under which the government could cancel the declaration of a newspaper or magazine. In 1996, the Pakistan People’s Party government in Sindh banned six evening newspapers, but lifted the ban within three days after a Joint Action Committee, comprising APNS, CPNE and PFUJ gave a one day strike call.
Pressure continued and successive governments used ‘government advertisements’ as leverage against papers they considered anti-government.
Nawaz Sharif’s first government used unprecedented tactics to curb the media. His Ehtesab Bureau head, Saifur Rehman, used intelligence agencies to record conversations of some editors and leading journalists. He also initiated some inquires. PFUJ continued its historic role and resisted the pressure.
Then came General Pervez Musharraf’s ‘coup’. Initially, he turned out to be very different from General Zia ul Haq. He did not impose any censorship nor put journalists behind bars. On the contrary, he allowed private tv channels which did open the space for free media in Pakistan, although Kargil fallout was heavily criticised by India’s private tv channels.
However, in 2007, he was ill-advised into banning news channels and leading anchors on November 3 when he declared ‘Emergency Plus’. Sources said he was advised that if channels were banned the Lawyers’ Movement would die down. On the contrary, it became stronger as PUFJ launched a separate movement against the ban and some 200 journalists were arrested. For the first time, a sedition case was registered against PFUJ as an organisation.
The process to corrupt the media has been a part of the strategy of successive rulers; that is why every government has retained this most corrupt ministry. They also continue their control over state-owned PTV, Radio Pakistan and Associated Press of Pakistan (APP).
Till Musharraf’s era, the behind-the-scene players were known. But, for the first time during the last PML-N government, even the Minister of Information or PEMRA were often unaware of the reasons why some channels got ‘off air’.
It badly hurt the channels financially as their ratings would drop and directly affect marketing and private advertising.
Financial attack on the media has hurt media workers including journalists who are not getting salaries on time and other legal benefits. The wage board award which was supposed to be constituted every five years has only recently been constituted after 18 years.
Today, the media houses are not only divided, they are also polarised. They take ban on any channel or curtailment of advertisement on any newspaper as ‘beneficial’ for them, without realising that tomorrow they too could face a similar situation.
The other tactic against independent voices in the media came under attack not from the government but from rival media groups and through social media. Journalists have been branded traitors, working against national interest.
Newspaper circulations often get disturbed and channels get off air, without any instruction from the government, PEMRA or Information Ministry.
Media today is facing the worst kind of self-censorship and tv channels have adopted a policy of ‘delay system’ or ‘mute’ strong dissenting voices.
Media owners have also weakened the media power by not allowing workers’ unions to grow, use contractual employment to deprive workers of their basic rights. Thus, the unions have now shrunk from 60 in the 1960s and ’70s to only three.
Absence of unions and divisions besides corrupt practices, promoted both by known and unknown forces, have really hurt the media industry.
On paper media is free but its professionalism is badly fractured. What a tragedy that today an issue like DawnLeaks has created such ruckus that there are people calling for action against Dawn and Cyril Almeida. Whether we will be able to surmount this unprecedented challenge, far more serious than the days of censorship during dictatorship of Ayub or Zia, would become known soon.
General Ziaul Haq, addressing a press conference had showed his anger against journalists protesting for freedom of the Press, had said, “If today, I ban all newspapers and hang a few there will not be a single voice against it.” One journalist stood up and said, “No, Mr President, you are wrong. You can silence us but you cannot silence the voice of dissent.” The man was late Nisar Osmani, President of Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists.
After almost 40 years, when a list of those journalists whom certain quarters believed are working against the national interest, was placed before 100 journalists, there was no one who could even question name of their colleagues on a ‘chart’.
No wonder why we still miss and need someone like Nisar Usmani.