Many journalists and media persons, including their representative organisations, want the world to believe that freedom of expression is being stifled and the press remains under siege in Pakistan. A similar line is being propagated by select media barons, who call the shots in the All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) and the Pakistan Broad-casters Association (PBA). Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs), advocating issues close to the heart of the Western establishment, also echo this propaganda. Then, there are those so-called “international” journalists and media NGOs, which operate from various Western capitals — from Washington to Paris — giving awards, scholarships and consultancies to journalists and writers, who toe their line in the developing countries. They set the tone and lead the chorus of propaganda by issuing one-sided reports on press freedom scorecards in which mainly non-western nations, especially those that are not completely aligned to their establishments and the worldview, are targeted.
In countries like Pakistan, which carry the baggage of a colonial past, many educated, westernised Pakistanis, former leftists-turned-liberals, “wannabe” West-anointed intellectuals and activists, and the narrow ethnic and sub-nationalist elements hold what they view as a “politically correct” view.
Like a “witches brew,” this lethal mix helps make or break perceptions, because in the traditional and social media, they wield the kind of influence which is far disproportionate to their miniscule presence in society.
This influential minority has created an atmosphere of doom and gloom regarding the state of the Pakistani media. They allege that the media remains under attack from the combined powers of the elected government and the establishment, and the country has become “the most dangerous place” for journalists.
But does this negative perception propagated about Pakistan, from within the country and abroad, reflect the reality? Is the media really being suppressed and are dissenting voices being silenced by hook or by crook in an organised manner? Is it the state policy to silence critical voices?
Whatever these elements might say, the fact is that no journalist, writer or social media activist is in jail in the country because of what he/she has said or written, targeting the government or the armed forces. No one has been convicted in any libel or defamation case. No publication or news channel has been forced to close shop on any such charges.
If libel or defamation cases are occasionally filed, courts tend to traditionally side with the media. This is unlike the practice in Western countries, where suits worth millions of pounds and dollars ensure that the media, including the tabloid press, stick to some basic ethical standards and norms of journalism. But in Pakistan, a weak regulatory framework and non-implementation of laws has failed to put any kind of lid on sensational, propagandist journalism, in which one can get away with falsehoods, and hurling abuses and four-letter words at rivals. And this practice is not just confined to those criticising the government or the establishment; even the ruling party indulges in such shameful practices.
However, in developing countries, it is always the government, cabinet members and the president or the prime minister, who are at the receiving end because of the huge gap between the expectations of the masses and the delivery of electoral promises by the ruling party.
Similar is the case in Pakistan. The government and its bigwigs remain the target of not just genuine criticism, but many unfounded and even bizarre allegations. Phrases like “selected, incompetent, coward, corrupt, and traitor” etc. are used liberally against government representatives, who, in turn, pay the opposition in the same coin.
The armed forces and intelligence agencies — which, in other countries, are not dragged into controversies — are also not spared. If in newspapers and news channels there are often subtle to blatant and direct to indirect attacks against these state institutions, on social media it is a free-for-all situation. Certain elements, especially the narrow ethnic and sub-nationalist groups, a handful of Pakistanis sitting abroad and their liberal allies are trying their best to undermine the state of Pakistan and its institutions and drive a wedge between the armed forces and the masses.
Pakistani officials maintain that a huge racket of disinformation is also being run from India and even Afghanistan, which aims to promote sectarian and ethnic discord, and, additionally, damage the reputation of the armed forces.
In a vast majority of cases, the media and the west-sensitive leadership of the armed forces does not act against the perpetrators of this kind of propaganda carried out from within Pakistan. However, when all limits are crossed, as was the case with some big media groups a few times, action is taken at the unofficial level because of the absence of an efficient regulatory framework and legal recourse.
However, this unofficial action, such as temporary removal of news channels or changing their position on the cable network, hardly works and always provides a new avenue to Pakistan’s detractors to intensify their propaganda.
On and off, high-handed actions by local officials — usually not part of the government or state policy — against some individuals, including small-time activists-cum-bloggers and senior or junior journalists, also backfire and end up giving them prominence.
Successive governments have failed to come up with any workable regulatory framework or strengthen the judiciary for the swift disposal of media-related suits — from libel and defamation to mediaworker-related issues — as well as routine criminal and civil cases, which usually drag on for decades.
Therefore, the government needs to make an independent and effective regulatory authority, which can manage both traditional and new media platforms. Such a proposal has already been floated by Information Minister Fawad Chaudhary, but the media establishment stands firmly opposed to it as the status-quo suits it.
If the print media overwhelmingly banks on statements issued by politicians and various interest groups to fill its space, the electronic media also remains no different. From hourly news-bulletins to prime time current affairs shows —there is talk, talk and more talk — in other words, statements. The more sensational the content (dramatic discussion without conclusion), the more eyeballs it catches, which, in turn, boosts ratings.
In other words, the media industry is profit-driven and owners jealously guard their commercial interests by not exposing or antagonising big commercial enterprises — their advertisers. Instead, they encourage content which generates the necessary sound and fury by attacking the government and, at times, the establishment or the key opposition figures. In most cases, the government, the establishment and even the opposition remain an easy and helpless target, especially of the electronic media onslaught, which is aided by talking heads comprising politicians, political commentators, journalists and programme hosts. In a way, the entire popular narrative is held hostage by a few dozen faces, who keep rotating on almost every channel.
Barring a select few topics, the media, especially the electronic media, has little space for the coverage of backward areas, say Balochistan, rural Sindh, southern Punjab or the far-flung areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Genuine issues — from population control to education, health, housing or poverty — are hardly touched. And even if any of these are covered, it is usually event-or mishap-oriented and aimed at stoking emotions. There is hardly any room for documentaries, packages or reports aimed at educating and informing the masses.
If one sets 100 marks for press freedom, the Pakistani media is free to report, criticise and write exposés on more than 90 per cent issues. The strictly no-go areas, including undermining core religious beliefs, criticising blasphemy laws, and attacking the judiciary and the armed forces, are less than 10 percent.
In any country, there are always a few red lines, including in Europe and North America, which are often idealised for their press freedom. But even in these countries, any report challenging the official version of the Holocaust, or the core values of their society — democracy, capitalism, individual freedom etc. — are not spared. A junior reporter of the Associated Press of America, Emily Wilder, 22 was sacked from her job in May this year, for her pro-Palestinian comments made on social media when she was a student at Stanford University.
Similarly, former US President Donald Trump was blacked-balled and shunted out of the social media and targeted on mainstream media, when he challenged the established norms and the system. Both these are recent examples of stifling dissent in a country considered the leader of the “free world.” But who can forget all the witch-hunts of those writers and journalists deemed Communists in the post-World War II years of the1940s and 1950s? Even today, no one can challenge the core values of the United States where freedom exists on agreed issues but none can cross the red lines. Similar examples can be traced in the United Kingdom and other European countries.
Pakistan, which is fighting different brands and shades of terrorism for more than two-decades now and faces hostilities both on its eastern and western borders, also has its red lines. But as the state is brittle and remains under pressure from western countries, Islamabad is unable to enforce these red lines, which are challenged and violated on a regular basis. Yet, the state fails to act in most cases, and under pressure from the Western countries makes compromises.
It is ironic that despite having one of the most colourful, sensational, irresponsibly candid and vibrant media, Pakistan faces taunts of repressing freedom of expression. Even a cursory comparison of the state of the media in Pakistan with all its South Asian neighbours, including India and Bangladesh, shows that the Pakistani press stands head and shoulders above them when it comes to press freedom. And it is not just in South Asia, but all the 50-plus Muslim countries, that Pakistan has the freest media. Go a step further and compare it with nations of the Far East — from Singapore to South and North Korea — or even Central Asia and Eastern Europe; Pakistan can take pride in the fact that it has virtually given a free hand to one of the world’s most irresponsible press and social media.
Historically, too, the Pakistani press has made huge strides. Compared to the past — the period between the 1950s and 1960s and the first and second decades of the new millennium — conditions for the media have improved as the press and publication laws have been relaxed and reformed. Moreover, in terms of political and financial clout, the media and mediapersons have spread their wings.
Admittedly, conditions are not ideal for the press, as is the case in other countries, but they are not that abysmal either, which many in our fraternity would have us believe. Professional journalists can be critical of any government, or the state and the establishment’s policy, and they would be respected for that. There is hardly an example where any professional journalist has been targeted by the government or the state. The problem occurs only when fabricated and dishonest allegations are levelled and journalism is transformed into a tool for propaganda or political activism. It is the responsibility of the respective managements of various media organisations to allow them space to indulge in propaganda or not. In the West too, every media organisation lays down its own editorial policies — but there are certain red lines that cannot be crossed.
But here in Pakistan, freedom is demanded without any responsibility. Consequently, the state will have to assert itself to ensure that in this day and age of fourth- and fifth-generation warfare, the traditional and social media are not used to sow discord and undermine the country and its institutions. This can only be done through an efficient regulatory framework and implementation of the existing laws, and, where needed, enacting new ones. Press freedom can be strengthened only if the press is accountable and responsible. The media cannot be left unregulated and at the mercy of commercial and vested interests, and foreign and hostile powers, who are out to exploit and damage the country.