In its ‘Naya Pakistan’ poll manifesto, the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) had stated that they are “committed to maintaining a vigorous free media, which will evolve its own rules to ensure responsible journalism both in the electronic and print media.” However, about a year later, on October 27, 2019, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) issued a directive calling upon news channels [vide 6(d) of the order] to ensure that anchors “[exclude] themselves from their personal opinions, biases and judgments on any issue.” The directive further stated that “anchors hosting exclusive regular shows should not appear in talk shows whether own and other channels as subject matter experts.” They were also told to select their guests with “due care.”
The directive drew widespread criticism from media personnel and opposition parties. Some members of the PTI-led government also spoke against it. Former finance minister and senior PTI leader Asad Umar called it “suppressing the rights of individuals.” In the wake of such criticism, PEMRA issued a rejoinder a day later stating that its orders were “misinterpret[ed]” and that “there is no advisory to ban participation of journalists in talk shows.”
The directive was clearly aimed at restraining the anchors and commentators in news channels from expressing their views or speculating on sub-judice matters in a manner that “[derogated] and maligned judiciary and institutions.” However, point 6(d) of the directive, which sought to stop anchors from participating in talk shows and airing their views, was certainly an act of over-reach. However, PEMRA’s rejoinder somewhat restored the balance in favour of media anchors and journalists.
Nevertheless, the intentions of the government appeared quite clear as Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting, Firdous Ashiq Awan, put up a strong defence of the directive stating that it was a reiteration of PEMRA’s “existing code of conduct.” She even complained to the Prime Minister about ministers/leaders opposed to the order, implying that the government remained adamant in its resolve. On October 30, PEMRA issued another advisory to the private channels, quoting orders of the Accountability Court, asking them “to stop maligning the courts for their political motives.” Given the political nature of accountability trials being conducted in Pakistan targeting opposition leaders, PEMRA’s directives confirm the ruling dispensation’s extreme sensitivity to media criticism. It also highlighted its intentions to rein in the media by all means. Constitutionally, PEMRA is a federal institution formed in 2002 through an ordinance with the mandate “to regulate electronic media in Pakistan” and to improve the standard of information and provide good analysis. However, it has frequently been used by the government to gag the media.
In July 2019, Prime Minister Khan had said during an interaction at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington DC that “the Pakistan media, in my opinion, is even freer than the British media” and “the media in Pakistan is not just free but sometimes out of control.” He acknowledged that media personnel were beaten up during the tenures of Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif but asserted that similar incidents will not be tolerated under his premiership. Taking an indirect dig at the Pakistani journalists, he even said, though in a lighter vein, “what we need is to control the media, not through the government but through media watchdog.” Since then, however, different measures have been put forth including setting up of “media courts” and channels being issued notices to not air interviews, culminating in the recent directives from PEMRA.
In Pakistan, where democracy is still struggling to take roots, media has been under perennial threat from unelected but powerful institutions. As the seasoned journalist Cyril Almeida said while speaking in a talk on “Reign of Censorship” in London in November 2019: “Censorship is not going to get better in Pakistan. The two questions now are: how much worse will it get and how quickly that will happen.”
Arguably, fair reporting has cost many journalists their lives in Pakistan. Attacks on journalists, who allegedly speak either against the high-handedness of state institutions or in favour of minorities, are on the rise since 2008. A report on the press freedom by Reporters Without Borders in 2019 said that in Pakistan, journalists operate in a “difficult situation.”
Several journalists have borne the brunt of politicians, military, secret agencies and extremists in Pakistan. Sometimes they are hit and killed, sometimes warned and at times they are picked up by the agencies and roughed up. Journalists like Taha Siddiqui, Raza Rumi, among others, have even been forced to leave the country. Others like Hamid Mir and Cyril Almeida, despite being subjected to attacks or coercion, have stayed back.
Since 2002, according to the Pakistan Press Foundation, “8 journalists have been killed in targeted attacks and 24 for their work till 2019….171 suffered serious assaults and 77 minor attacks….18 got arrested, 26 detained and 36 booked in different cases.” Most of these cases were not seriously investigated and the perpetrators went scot-free. The authorities have not demonstrated any credible commitment to pursue cases that involve attacks on or killing of journalists critical of religious groups, military, politicians or state institutions.
Taha Siddiqui, an award-winning journalist, was attacked in Islamabad on January 10, 2018. He was beaten and “threatened with death”. A year later, Taha wrote that he survived “an abduction and possible assassination” attempt and that “the attack was orchestrated by the Pakistani army, which has been threatening me for years over my journalistic work on military abuses in Pakistan.” Earlier in 2017, Taha was summoned by the Federal Investigative Agency (FIA), a counter-intelligence and security agency under the ISI, for his online activities.
According to Raza Rumi, attacked in 2014 for speaking against some religious extremist groups, “it is not difficult to find out who these unknown attackers are. Technological tools are available but what is missing is the political will of the political elites who are afraid or, worse, indifferent.” Long pending demands of the journalists that they should be protected and enquiries on attacks fast-tracked have all fallen on deaf ears.
In Pakistan, there is a tendency of powerful actors operating indiscriminately and attempting to dominate the system and socio-political narratives. The religious parties do not approve of media reporting and analysis that they consider sacrilegious. Similarly, the security agencies are sensitive to how they are reported and portrayed in popular imagination by the media. Lately, the current government of Imran Khan is also becoming overly sensitive to media criticism. Due to these factors, the space for free journalism and fearless reportage is shrinking by the day. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in its 2018 report said that the climate for freedom of press in Pakistan was deteriorating and that “the military has quietly, but effectively, set restrictions on reporting.” Journalists like Umer Cheema, Hamid Mir, Taha Siddiqui, have been targeted for keeping up their professional ethics and talk shows, interviews, or editorials were being stopped from reaching out to the wider public. The Director General of Inter Service Public Relations (ISPR) went on record in 2018 to warn some journalists about their online anti-Army activities. He threatened them by stating that the secret agency was keeping an eye on them for spreading propaganda against the Army.
In view of growing criticism from sections of the media for his economic policies and political situation prevalent in the country, especially amid allegations that the government was using National Accountability Bureau (NAB) as a political tool against the opposition leaders, Imran Khan’s government is keeping a close tab on the media. PEMRA’s October 2019 directive is the latest attempt at gagging the freedom of press in the country.
Some commentators have pointed out that Imran Khan enjoys the backing of the powerful military establishment. In the aftermath of the 2013 general elections, when the PTI did not do well, Imran Khan started a protest movement to bring down the Nawaz Sharif Government. The protests were given wide coverage, unlike the recent protests of Maulana Fazl-ur Rehman which were banned from being broadcast. According to a Pakistani scholar, Neha Ansari, in 2014, the Pakistani media houses had “received instructions from the military to support the ‘dissenting’ leaders and their sit-ins. The military, therefore, was using the media to lend its support and might to the anti-government movement in an attempt to cut Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif down to size.” However, when Imran Khan’s government faced similar protests couple of months back, the army did not support the protest movement against him. It even came out in support of the government stating that the army is “supporting the elected government within the limits described in the Constitution.” Unlike in the 2014 protests, the army said that it would not back Azadi March of Fazl-ur Rehman and create instability in the country.
In contrast to the promise made in 2018 poll manifesto that “PEMRA will be made autonomous so it does not become a political tool in the hands of any government to target the freedom of the electronic media,” the PTI-led government is using the same regulatory body to stifle the media. Moreover, the government’s decision to set up media courts is another sinister move against the freedom of media. In September 2019, the federal cabinet chaired by Imran Khan approved a plan to set up media tribunals under the pretext of seeking speedy disposal of media-related cases within a time limit of 90 days. So far, cases pertaining to media were being dealt by PEMRA and the Press Council of Pakistan. However, under the new plan, all new as well as pending cases will be sent to these tribunals. An editorial in Dawn argued that there is no sign that these tribunals are meant for any benign purpose. It stated that “we can be sure, the proposed tribunals will be yet another device to harass and persecute outspoken journalists.”
The government’s close tab on media houses that tend to critique its policies has led to stoppage of government advertisements, shutting down of cable channels, and intimidation of media house owners. These punitive measures have adversely affected their business. The latest tactic being followed by the Imran Khan Government is to use its army of sympathisers in the social media to troll journalists who are critical of the government. Iram Abbasi wrote that “what’s happening under Prime Minister Imran Khan might not be as brutal as the suppression of previous governments, but it’s far more insidious and pervasive.”
Ahmed Waleed, the Lahore bureau chief of a privately-owned channel, Samaa TV, also said that “There was pressure before, but it has multiplied several times now.” On October 18, Steven Butler, head of CPJ, was stopped from speaking in a seminar on late human rights activist Asma Jahangir and was deported from Lahore airport. Butler later said that “it would be speculative for me to say why I was stopped. In any case, local journalists bear the brunt of the crackdown. It’s certainly getting worse for them.” More recently, the sudden resignation of senior and award-winning journalist Cyril Almeida from Dawn newspaper has raised several eyebrows. Almeida was involved in leaking the minutes of a meeting held between the army and government officials in 2016. He was put on Exit Control List (ECL) immediately afterwards. His May 2018 interview of Nawaz Sharif, where the former prime minister expressed his dismay at being unable to bring the perpetrators of Mumbai attacks to justice, had irritated the deep state. This was followed by a case of treason being filed against him.
The current elected government in Pakistan appears less tolerant of media criticism than its predecessors. The government and the military appear quite determined to either silence or censor media by all means. This may prove counter-productive since such restrictions can fuel further criticism, especially at a time when the government seems unable to fulfil its promises and meet the expectations of the people. Given the government’s strong links with the deep state and Imran’s aversion to criticism – a trait he shares with his benefactors – it is likely that efforts to further throttle and tame the media will continue. This raises serious questions about Imran Khan’s promises on strengthening country’s democratic institutions that he keeps invoking to muster popular support. In such circumstances, media in Pakistan will be walking a tightrope and looking over their backs, unsure of what the future holds for them.
The author is Research Analyst at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses
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