Watching the watchdog


The first industry to suffer a blow during every government change has been always been the media. From arresting critiquing journalists to disallowing channels from airing and even shutting down publications, media in Pakistan continues to struggle through and through.

Media in Pakistan stayed fairly limited till 2000s when General Pervez Musharraf took over and allowed private TV channels to operate in the country.

General Musharraf was hailed both locally and internationally for his exceptional work for the freedom of speech. The bliss, however, was short lived.

In 2007, the military ruler imposed an emergency across the country banning media channels from operating. Musharraf issued rules prohibiting media from broadcasting or publishing statements ridiculing him, top government officials and the military.

Ironically, the same Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Pakistan Peoples Party that had once condemned Musharraf’s decision to ban the media and stood in support of the freedom of speech tread the same path as the military dictator.

Though the civilian governments did not resort to banning media in general, it used other tactics including financially choking media houses in effort to silence their voices.

Only this year, Pakistan was ranked 157 in the World Press Freedom Index—a steep decline of 12 points in comparison to the previous year. Pakistan fared worse than the other South Asian countries including Afghanistan (156), India (150), Sri Lanka (146).

Freedom Network released a report which revealed that journalists in Pakistan have been targeted mostly by state actors in the past one year (May 2021 to April 2022) during Imran Khan’s government, resulting in violence, legal cases, abductions, detentions and threats.

According to the report, 86 instances of attacks on journalists across Pakistan. The highest number of attacks — 32 — were recorded in Islamabad; Sindh came in second with 23 attacks on journalists.

The trend, unfortunately, has been continued by its successor which has used FIA and other state institutions to forge cases against journalists most critical of the government, Pakistan Army, judiciary and other state institutions.

Realising the power and strength of social media, the incumbent government has also cracked down on social media activists further trying to limit sane voices.

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But the result remains the same.

The more the government tries to quash a certain opinion the more popular it becomes. In this era of social media, it is almost impossible for the governments to build a narrative and expect that the entire country believes them.

The social media has provided a platform to both the government and the opposition to put forward their side of the story and let people choose what they want to believe. Gone are the days of only PTV when the government of the day got to decide what to tell people and what to hold back. Social media has become an important tool for the spread of information and misinformation alike.

Every political party seems to have their favourites, the media outlet that helps furthering their narrative and discrediting their opponents. The media organisation prospers during the time their supporting political party is in power and is banished after. It is a never-ending cycle that the media houses face today.

Today, it is more important than ever that media houses stay together and not engage in battles among themselves and give room to each other and be each other’s voice and help the other. The ultimate goal of freedom of speech will only be attained if media is allowed a voice and this can only be achieved if media houses work together to achieve it.  

Basma Siddiqui
Basma Siddiqui
The writer is a journalist who has been associated with The Express Tribune and Bol News and can be reached @BasmaSiddiqui.

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