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Opinion
Saturday Mar 14 2020
By

Freedom of press in the age of Imran Khan

Photo: File

The late Nisar Osmani, former president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, once said: “Criticising and exposing the policies of the government is always allowed, rather, it is encouraged in a democratic society because only through it can an alternate leadership be organised.” A society, he went on, where reporters face pressure is an authoritarian one.

The present administration of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), led by Prime Minister Imran Khan, is the third consecutive elected government to come to power, as a result of national polls.

For a political party that was bolstered by the media, in its early days, one would have expected it to further push for the freedom of press. But, it hasn’t.

The arrest of Mir Shakil ur Rehman, the editor-in-chief of Pakistan's largest media group Jang and GEO, by the anti-graft body, the National Accountability Bureau, should not be seen in isolation. There was a pattern on display in the last 20 months, since the PTI came to power, to vilify journalists, especially those associated with the Jang group.

If Prime Minister Imran Khan ever believed in the freedom of press, he has now taken a U-turn.

International media watchdogs, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and others have strongly condemned the attempt to silence independent press in the country.

Since the past few years, journalists in Pakistan have been facing a relentless onslaught. The attack has been on social media and on the ground. Television and print reporters would at times find notices from the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) or gag orders from the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA). Now, the NAB has also joined the bandwagon, to please the premier.

In January, while in Davos, the prime minister told a gathered audience that he does not read the newspapers or watch evening TV shows. “I am used to the criticism,” he added, “but the last one and half years I’ve been hammered in the media.”

Now, it seems, the prime minister doesn’t want anyone in the country to read or watch the news.

Not too long back, the same Khan waxed lyrical about the press and even credited it for bringing him to his current position, as prime minister. Once, he even promised to abolish the ministry of information and to make PTV and Radio Pakistan autonomous bodies which would run on the BBC pattern. Khan also went as far as to suggest that Pakistan have an independent advertising policy.

But when he came to power, he forgot his promises. His political party targeted even those talk show heads and reporters who once stood up for Khan.

Mir Shakil ur Rehman was arrested this week in a case that dates back to 1986. That the NAB had to dig out papers of an over 30-year-old property shows that the government was struggling to bring any other case against the editor. Imran Khan had once accused Rehman of being involved in acquiring foreign funds through wrongful means. But as fate has it, Khan’s own party is facing those charges in a case taken up by the Election Commission of Pakistan.

Even before Imran Khan and the PTI made it to office, Geo and Jang reporters were being targeted by him and his political party. In 2014, while covering Khan’s 100-day rally, Geo reporters and cameramen were physically attacked and its DSNG’s trashed by supporters of the PTI.

After winning the election, the PTI-led government first stopped state advertisements of two leading media houses, DAWN and Geo/Jang. Both, Khan’s government believes, are critical of his policies. As a result the two organisations faced a massive financial crisis and had to lay off staff and delay salaries.

Meanwhile, bloggers and journalists were being arrested or harassed in contrived cases by the FIA, under a draconic 2016 electronic crimes act. None of the charges could hold up in a Pakistani court.

Furthermore, hashtag and social media campaigns are routinely launched against TV anchors and reporters by Twitter users who claim to be supporters of the PTI.

More recently, the ruling party also proposed to merge PEMRA and the Press Council under a new body, the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority, to give it overarching powers. The idea was later dropped.

Last month, the prime minister and his media team formulated social media rules, without consulting the stakeholders. The rules had to be yanked, after a public outrage and after international social media companies warned that they would have to reevaluate their plans to work in the country.

And when nothing else worked, the PTI took the route often traveled by military dictators: use PEMRA to shut down news channels.

Some media house were left with no other choice but to convince strong dissenting voices to stop writing their widely-read articles, for fear of upsetting the men in power.

Due to the lack of options, many out-of-job journalists have turned to social media and YouTube to make their voice heard.

Once I asked the former director general FIA Bashir Memon why his organisation only targets journalists, rights activists and bloggers critical of government policies, he said: “Under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, whenever we [the FIA] receives a complaint from the ministry of interior, we have to comply immediately.”

Journalists in Pakistan have struggled for a long time and come a long way. In the last 72 years, reporters were flogged, convicted and jailed. The rights, they fought to achieve, are in danger of being rolled back.

Imran Khan and his political party’s vitriol could result in violence against journalists. Reporters and editors, Mr. Khan, are citizens of this country. They too deserve protection and safety from their government.

As for the media, the only option left is to unite and fight a united battle for freedom of press. Because, it maybe us today, it could be you tomorrow.

Abbas is a senior columnist and analyst of GEO, The News and Jang. He tweets @MazharAbbasGEO