Is Media Really Under Threat in Pakistan?

By Aisha Saeed

A CIA officer lands in Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad, old rusty cars on uneven narrow streets bustling with bearded men and burqa clad women. These are the initial observations of an intelligence operative from the opening scenes of a FICTIONAL hit US TV show, Homeland. However, on the other hand, people in Pakistan’s tribal areas watched the skies in fear of REAL American drones. These drones, killing militants and civilians alike, are never a part of the US media narrative. The negative depiction of Pakistan in the Western media – be it in the news or in the movies – has become all too common.

This negative press gets more viewers and provides the adrenaline to Western polices on Pakistan. Amid the recent issues faced by Pakistan, the international press and broadcast media along with other rights groups have actively been covering the stories related to the crisis – yet again screening Pakistan as an unsafe country. From an open letter addressed to Pakistan’s army Chief to the coverage of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) that swelled up in the North, to the suspension of a popular media outlet, the country is all over the news; and again, for all the wrong reasons. This has also put a lot of questions over the freedom of press and electronic media in Pakistan.

Electronic media in Pakistan flourished at the time when Pakistan was in an active state of war. The unfortunate wave of terrorism left marks on every aspect of the country’s functioning, with the media and its workers also facing limitations and hurdles in covering conflict related stories. In the most uncertain times for the country, the media’s responsibility grew twice in its role; it now had to juggle between keeping the public informed to balancing around the red lines.

It was also the time when the media claims it lost its men for reporting on sensitive issues or while performing the task of investigations. Certain journalists or reporters working in Pakistan for international publications or news networks are quick to highlight specific crises in the country. In their pursuit of ‘hyper-active’ journalism, the state agencies are maligned and often dragged into the story without credible evidence. Pakistan has been in the list of countries that are dangerous for journalists and ranks low on different press freedom indexes.

Without concrete evidence the fingers from the media and other watch groups accused Pakistan’s prime spy agency. Given the situation of the country during the days of extreme violence, the terrorists attacked any individual or organization they suspected to be working with the Pakistani forces or their American counterparts. This was also the prelude for the terrorists to carry out attacks across Pakistan. Most attacks on the media workers in the country at that time were also politically driven or many were pushed into fear through use of force by the politically able of the country.

Also, the reason for current distrust between the two M’s (media and military) in Pakistan, is largely due to the different modus operandi of the two organizations. One seeks to keep the public informed while the other depends on secrecy; but it is more convenient to blame the agencies for attacks on journalists as they do not respond to the accusations made against them.

But the situation has improved drastically over the years and Pakistan’s media is considered one of freer in Asia. This also leads to certain questions on the recent reports of media censorship in Pakistan. Participants of the PTM complained that the broadcast media refused to cover their gatherings while anything in print is also being subjected to censorship. Certain stakeholders within the media industry itself, the public and the government make the most out of such crises in Pakistan. Giving airtime to the march seemed less profitable for the local media that did not want to face government suspension in the process by involving themselves with the PTM.

There are stakeholders that silently forge a narrative that brings them into the spotlight. Owners of most media giants in Pakistan are not journalists or reporters but influential businessmen who trade information. Although, most broadcasters and printing houses have their political preferences, but when editors run news that is less to inform the public but to build a certain narrative based on those preferences it becomes a liability to the socio-political situation of the country.

Article 19 of Pakistan’s constitution ensures the right to free speech, expression and the freedom of the press. However, utmost attention should be given to the latter half of the article that states “ any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defense of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, 1[commission of] or incitement to an offence. “

The law stated above is clear. The right to freedom of speech or expression including that of the press comes with the moral responsibility that every citizen of the country should hold or otherwise be subjected to the due law. What many in the media call the “red lines” or the “establishment” is constitutionally immune from public and media prosecution. Media trial is another phenomenon in Pakistan which subjects individuals and institutions but often lands those running on-air trails in a tussle with the actual law.

For a similar reason and airing evident biased narrative, one of Pakistan’s prime news channels faces suspension in different parts of the province. The supposed censorship has irked the advocates of free press and has drawn international criticism and debate. As mentioned before, the negative press about Pakistan gets more airtime than factual or positive news. Under the same article that grants the freedom to press, it also warns of consequences of not adhering to the law. The channel in question practiced the first half of the article but stood guilty for airing content that violated the other half (contempt of court). When the Ministry of Information and Broadcast including country’s media regulator PEMRA failed to halt the continuous exploitation of the constitutional freedom, the court ordered the network to be taken off air which fueled the speculations of involvement of the agencies.

In a country where media as an industry goes about making its own rules, practices self-censorship acts to gain prominence, violates the law frequently; one must ask if the media is really under threat in Pakistan? And is it in enough danger to gain the country notorious headlines in international press and airtime on international channels? Perhaps it is high time that the media and those associated with it subject themselves to self inspection and start to practice the noble profession of journalism in its true essence that comes with responsiblty before victimizing itself by the hands of the unseen. In the words of Albert Camus “a free press can be good or bad, but most certainly, without freedom a press will never be anything but bad. “

Aisha Saeed is an independent Research Analyst on Media and Foreign Policy; she tweets: @MsAishaK

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