Former PFUJ’s president late Nisar Osmani once said, “Criticising and exposing the policies and performance of the government is always allowed rather encouraged by a democratic society because that way alone can an alternate leadership be organised. In a society, where reporters faced pressure in reporting, is an authoritarian one.”
The present government of the PTI led by Prime Minister Imran Khan is the third consecutive one coming into power as a result of general elections and one was expecting it would further strengthen democratic institutions like the Press. Unfortunately, it’s the other way round as the government has come hard on the media.
Arrest of the editor-in-chief of Pakistan’s largest media group, Jang and Geo, Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman by the NAB, should not be seen in isolation but as a part of constant attack on the media by Prime Minister Imran Khan, whose government’s track record of 20 months speak volumes of anti-Press and anti-journalists measures. It clearly showed that he has now taken a ‘U-turn’ on his tall claims of freedom of the Press.
All the media organisations, owners, editors and working journalists have condemned the arrest and government’s constant attack on the media. International media watchdog like Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters without Borders, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and other bodies have condemned the arrest and called it an attempt to gag the media. The dilemma of our ruling elite for decades had been to gag the Press, keep them under control and thus they retained almost all the colonial anti-Press laws those adopted after Pakistan’s independence targeted the Press. Journalists in Pakistan are passing through the most difficult time as on the one hand they are facing life security issues and on the other job security.
The government used FIA and Pemra against media and journalists, the NAB has now joined the bandwagon, apparently to please the premier, who only weeks back expressed his displeasure towards independent media. “Remember, what the premier had said in a TV interview and that too outside Pakistan, “don’t read newspapers or watch TV talk shows”.
The same Khan, once use to praise the media and even credited them for bringing him to this position (PM) and his party, one of the most popular in Pakistan. He had even promised to abolish information ministry and to make PTV and Radio Pakistan autonomous bodies to be run on BBC pattern. He had also assured independent advertising policy. But when he came into power he took a ‘U-turn’ and his government has even targeted those journalists/anchors, who once supported him. This in itself showed how much he respects ‘dissent’.
Thus, the arrest of Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman in 1986 case by the NAB, also indicates that the government could not bring up any other case against him even the one once claimed by Imran Khan of ‘foreign funding’, which his own party is facing in the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and succeeded in delaying it for the past couple of years. How the media came under attack under the present government in just 20 months. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s venom against Geo and Jang Group has been there since 2014, when not only he verbally attacked the Group and Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, but the journalists, cameramen and DSNG staffers faced physical attacks from the PTI activists.
After coming into power his government tried to tighten its grip on the media and picked two main media groups. For instant, it first curtailed and stopped ‘advertisements of the two leading media houses, Jang/Geo and Dawn and disrupted their circulations and viewership.
It then used the FIA against journalists, rights activists and bloggers with arrest, cases and harassment. Dissenting voices were muzzled through different ways and means and some TV news channels faced pressures and shows were stopped.
Thus, the pattern itself showed that prime minister and his government were using methods to ‘control the media’ through different ways and means.
First, they tried merging Pemra and Press Council as well as PTA, under a new proposed law, Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA) when Fawad Chaudhry was the information minister. The idea was withheld but not dropped yet.
Then the government used FIA, which falls under interior ministry to attack social media activists through PECA, 2016. Dozens of cases were registered against ‘independent voices’ and some of them were even arrested, chained and faced courts. Almost all of them relied on the courts as FIA could not substantiate charges, which itself showed that the purpose was just to harass them.
The premier and his media team then surprised everyone even the international groups when it introduced ‘social media rules and regulations’ without consulting any stakeholder concerned. After a sharp reaction from within the country and from groups around the world, it faced huge embarrassment and left with no other choice but to withhold the same.
Like in the past, the government also used Pemra, through old practice like putting channel off air or pushed it to other numbers.
Similarly, the government’s agencies also disturbed the distribution of newspapers and almost blacked out ‘government advertisements’ of the two leading media groups, which created huge financial crisis and as a result hundreds of journalists and media workers lost their jobs, faced massive cut in their salaries and constant delay in the payment of salaries. Some media houses were left with no other choice but to ask strong ‘dissenting voices’ to stop writing or they themselves stopped when their columns and articles faced ‘censorship’ or ‘self-censorship’. At times even the ‘non-state actors’ and pressure groups have been used against Geo and Dawn in particular with threats and harassment.
Dozens of journalists working for different newspapers, TV channels and also active on social media, having their own you-tube channels faced harassment. Once I asked a former DG, FIA, Bashir Memon, as why FIA was only targeting journalists, rights activists and bloggers critical of the government policies, he said ‘under the PECA, 2016, whenever we received complaint from the interior ministry’, we have to obey the directive under the law. Thus, the arrest of Jang/Geo Editor-in-Chief Mir Shakil-ur- Rahman by the NAB in 34 years old case clearly indicated that the government is after Geo and Jang Group, come what may.
Even some of the sane voices in the PTI government like Dr Shireen Mazari, whose ministry introduced a Journalist Safety Protection Bill, but the same has now been deferred and withheld by another ministry. While Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman faces the NAB case and will take a legal course, Imran-led government has now come quite blatantly to execute his anti-Press narrative.
Government policies clearly showed that its target is big media houses, strong independent voices and if they succeeded it could be a serious threat to serious journalism in Pakistan.
Thus, the only option left for the media is to fight a united battle but for which the media houses need to address the genuine grievances of the journalists and other media workers who are facing serious salary crisis, something which has even divided the strong media force.
Press in Pakistan in the last 72 years has remained ‘under chain’, ‘under siege’, seen the ‘web of censorship’ and ‘fettered freedom’. It has come a long way in the struggle for freedom of the Press, in which journalists have been jailed, convicted and even flogged. There is no option left except to fight and defend the freedom.
The writer is a senior columnist and analyst of Geo, The News and Jang.