PTI trolls did no service to their party when on Tuesday they started a smear campaign on Twitter against independent media houses and journalists giving unfavourable coverage to its policies. The party’s social media wing fired off at least two dozen tweets in English and Urdu attacking the media for allegedly using freedom of expression to support “Enemy’s Stance” and commit “treason”. Soon it was all over the place, reverberating in at least four hashtags, two of which became top trends in Pakistan. Two of the highest trending hashtag tweets came from PTI’s Lahore wing and west Punjab chapter. Said one, “media houses and journalists must take care that in their quest for criticism on State, they intentionally or unintentionally do not end up propagating enemy’s stance.” Prime Minister’s Focal Person on Digital Media Arslan Khalid added his own bit to the hashtag on journalism, claiming among other things, “we in fact steered the conversations away from that [purportedly negative] campaign and ran an alternative, more educative trend instead from the official account.”
Actually, it is the PM’s focal person and his associates who need to be educated about the role of media in a functioning democracy. First of all, they should know that the State is not synonymous with government. So any criticism of the government actions or policies cannot be construed as disparagement of the State. Second of all the media, universally recognised as the fourth estate, is duty-bound to represent the interests of society by holding governments to account for their acts of omission or commission. Hence by definition, the relationship between the media and government is of an adversarial nature. And rulers are expected to take criticism in their stride. But the PTI is reacting irresponsibly, labeling dissenting journalists as traitors. Unfortunately, there is a long history in this country of undemocratic regimes as well as right wing parties putting the ‘traitor’ or ‘anti-state’ label on politicians and journalists critical of them or having a different worldview. This democratically-elected government was expected to act better. Sadly, it seems to have a dictatorial streak, which makes it intolerant of adverse opinion.
PTI’s man for the digital media later tried to backtrack, saying “we were only trying to discourage irresponsible journalism. One tweet was badly worded and everyone presented it as a campaign without considering the context.” He did not mention the context, though. In any event, it is not for the government to decide what constitutes responsible or irresponsible journalism. For that there are media bodies, and laws that define the limits of freedom of expression, equally applicable to journalists and non-journalists. The government must stop harassing non-conformist media and focus on its own business.