Muzzling the Media – Journal
With World Press Freedom Day around the corner, we are being offered, if nothing else, a delicious excuse to dive into the recent past and make some sort of assessment, however vague, of our real position – are the guardians of our information free and independent and pluralistic, or are they controlled and gagged, and therefore perpetually afraid of what they may say, unspoken but sharp lines that they may cross, to such an extent that instead of declaring the truth, as is their right and duty, they are forced to whisper it, in riddles and rhymes.
A very useful point of reference is the final report of the EU Election Observation Mission on the 2018 general elections, which noted that although our media appeared to be both ‘dynamic’ and ‘free’, its’ Editorial policies have been carefully calibrated to minimize problems associated with the military. , state security structures and the judiciary ”. Further, it detected “concerted efforts to stifle the reporting environment” and concluded that under such circumstances “severe self-censorship was the safest way to continue publishing.”
Even today, it offers a fascinating insight. First, the bizarre revelation that “editors of liberal-leaning news houses have received phone calls from state actors,” who gave “instructions” on how “key events and decisions” should be discussed. . A similar strategy was also employed at the local level, where “district information officers” and “other state actors” offered “advice” on how political parties should be covered. Unfortunately, the report does not mention exactly who these “state actors” and “other state actors” were.
Even stranger is the erratic behavior he attributed to Pemra, our main media regulator, accused of showing “overt partiality” in the exercise of his authority. On the one hand, it sanctioned “six television stations for violating the silence of the campaign”, but neglected to do the same when two other stations violated its guidelines by broadcasting preliminary results “showing the victory of the PTI” . In addition, he took no positive action when the cable companies “took Geo News off the distribution list in the cantonment areas and changed the channel placement to Dawn”, or even when they completely unplugged Geo News. “In the residential areas of Lahore and Karachi”. for two consecutive days.
The harsh truth is that our media operate in a dangerously negotiated space.
When questioned by the mission for access to its decisions on official complaints, Pemra politely informed them that these were “confidential”, a position also taken by her sub-offices, none of which were willing to disclose their files or to provide details of their follow-up. methods. According to the report (and according to common sense), these actions “raised questions about the motivation of the regulator”.
It was a pretty damning indictment of state-sponsored crackdown on our media. An international watchdog (invited by our State for its alleged neutrality no less), assessed that the electronic and print media – the largest disseminators of information to the general public – faced significant constraints in being able to report freely on issues of public interest, issues that have profoundly affected the lives and livelihoods of our people. The fact that these observations were made in the context of a general election only adds insult to injury, for there is no more decisive time for a country than the tense few months in which it elects its members. chosen representatives.
More importantly, he lent further (very credible) evidence to the long-held claim that our state operates on a policy of actively trying, let’s call it, to “ muzzle ” the media, because what ‘it describes is a simple violation of Article 19, which guarantees both freedom of speech and freedom of the press, subject of course to reasonable restrictions imposed by law – none of which allow Pemra to apply discriminatory sanctions policies or turn a blind eye to the sinister machinations of the “ cable operators ”, and certainly none of them allow state actors to put pressure on the media to promote any kind of story.
You see, while our Prime Minister may claim that it is “a joke” to suggest that there are “brakes on the Pakistani media”, the realities on the ground paint a picture that leaves little room for casual comedy. The harsh truth is that our media operate in a dangerously negotiated space. Journalists are regularly harassed, threatened, assaulted and even killed – all with impunity. Some find themselves facing trumped-up accusations, while others mysteriously fall out of the network, either to resurface after what trolls call “ software updates ” or never to be heard again.
All of this has nurtured a pervasive culture of silence, where much of the value is simply left out, and everything that is said is shrouded in euphemisms. But euphemisms come with a danger of their own, for what cannot be openly named becomes what cannot be identified, and what cannot be identified will forever remain what cannot be held responsible.
Since the election, things have worsened significantly. Pakistan has slipped from 139 to 145 on the Global Press Freedom Index, and there has been a sudden surge in new repressive tactics – just last month, a UN human rights panel expressed grave concern at what he described as an “alarming model” of “baseless accusations” being leveled against journalists and rights activists. If such trends continue, the future can only offer bleak calm.
There is undoubtedly a myriad of issues plaguing our media – from the malaise of yellow journalism to callous reporting and blatant prejudice. However, these are deeply rooted systemic issues, which can only be remedied through transparent regulation and strict enforcement of existing defamation laws (preferably of the civil type, as criminal defamation is quickly abandoned for its deterrent effects. potentials).
What needs to be understood, however, is that underhand manipulation of the media will not help – it will only create more polarization and fragmentation, not to mention the risk of pushing us further into the black hole in the world. misinformation that surrounds us already.
For citizens in a democratic configuration, a free flow of credible information is the only real source of power. It tells us exactly what the state apparatus does – its actions, its omissions and, most importantly, its transgressions. Anyone who denies us this right is committing a treacherous and unforgivable betrayal of our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.
The writer is a lawyer.
Posted in Dawn on April 29, 2021