Need of hour: Free media, free polls

When the media is told 'what to do and what not to' it loses editorial control and freedom

Mazhar Abbas
Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest against the arrest of three prominent activists for press freedom, in central Istanbul, Turkey, June 21, 2016.Photo: Reuters
Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest against the arrest of three prominent activists for press freedom, in central Istanbul, Turkey, June 21, 2016.Photo: Reuters 

How free will the media be, especially during the coverage of the general election-2023?

When the media is told 'what to do and what not to' it loses editorial control and freedom. The press and media freedom is nothing but a myth.

It was during the 2008 elections when Pakistani electronic media received the following ‘notice’ from Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, PEMRA with the title, ‘POLITICAL CAMPAIGN-MEDIA SILENCE PERIOD.’

Media organisations like the Pakistan Broadcasting Association (PBA) and the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) resisted and jointly protested against the ban and warned that they would completely black out the whole elections under protest. Within no time the notification was withdrawn.

Those were the days when media stakeholders at times joined hands against such curbs and stood united on issues pertaining to media restrictions.

After the last journalist movement against the ban on media during General (Retd) Pervez Musharraf's ban on some TV news channels and anchors on November 3, 2007, the government and some other state organs then followed the policy to divide the media, channels and organisations and sadly but truly they succeeded. The policy of 'carrot and stick' worked out successfully.

What we are witnessing today, is something unprecedented. At times there have been ‘undeclared’ restrictions on media with stern warnings of possible consequences in case of defiance. There are also reports that electronic media have been told, ‘what to report and what not to’ with no resistance, reservations or protest from the media watchdog.

It all started a few years back with incidents like Dawn Leaks and an attack on noted journalist and anchor of Geo News, Hamid Mir. Media not only looked divided, some of them rather acted more loyal than the king. These two top media groups faced unprecedented curbs, and threats, and practically been declared as ‘anti-state.’ If in the case of Dawn Leaks, the leading Pakistani English newspaper’s circulation and distribution become nearly impossible followed by a ban on government advertisements, the Geo Group almost declared as ‘anti-state’ remained off air and cable operators were told not to block Geo. Its reporters, anchors and even DSNGs were not welcome at official functions. At times even its mics with the logo were removed from press conferences.

Except for PFUJ the other media stakeholders looked divided and ultimately lost their place and power due to their division. Even the high-powered Judicial Commission comprising three Supreme Court Judges, constituted to probe into the attack on Hamid Mir was later disbanded for unknown reasons though it had almost completed its work.

Ban on critical voices allowed the culture of ‘fake news’ and disinformation to fill the vacuum on social and digital media with mainstream media and serious voices took the backseat.

Sadly, the successive civilian governments of PPP, PML-N, and PTI instead of ensuring and protecting freedom of expression and press, not only allowed all these undemocratic measures but also introduced legislation which further gagged the Press including print, electronic and digital media in the name of ‘regulations.’

For instance, in 2016, the PML-N government introduced Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act, PECA, and the PTI government which criticised this law when they were in opposition proposed a more repressive law when it came into power in the name of the PECA Ordinance. The PECA empowered the FIA to take action against social media activists and in the last few years, they mostly targeted dissenting voices but failed to prove cases in the court of law.

The arrest of Jang and Geo Media Group owner Mir Shakeel ul Rehman, kidnapping of Matiullah Jan, violent attack on Asad Toor and Absar Alam, ban on Nawaz Sharif's speech and other incidents occurred in PTI government, while the brutal murder of anchor Arshad Sharif, ban on Imran speech, disappearance of anchor Imran Riaz Khan and most recent one of Jang correspondent Mohammad Askari all such incidents happened during the last 15 months of Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) government.

Both PEMRA and PECA are now being used to ‘gag the media,’ in the name of regulations in addition to draconian laws including some of the pre-partition laws like cases of sedition 124-A, which some of the journalists are still facing.

Three mainstream political leaders of populist parties faced a ban. These include: MQM London founder, Altaf Hussain, who incurred the wrath of the state after his controversial speech and chanting anti-Pakistan slogan on August 22, 2016; former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who was disqualified during the PTI government after being convicted in the Panama Papers case; and now another former premier Imran Khan for his critical views on the present establishment. All three were also accused of inciting violence.

Besides, the killing of journalists, kidnapping or disappearance and attack on the media continued with no one arrested, tried or punished.

The only positive legislation as far as media was concerned were made during the PTI government by the Human Rights Ministry headed by former PTI leader and the then Minister, Ms Shireen Mazari called the ‘Journalist Safety and Protection Bill’.

But, to this day, the government is yet to announce the Journalist Safety Commission. The law allowed the high-powered commission to probe and made those accountable responsible in the cases against journalists and media at large.

However, Sindh took the lead and the Provincial Assembly not only passed a similar law but also constituted the Commission headed by a reputed lawyer and Justice (Retd) Rasheed Rizvi. The Commission has already started its function though the government had not sanctioned any grant for setting up its Secretariat or staffer while the chairman and members had not sought any salary or perks for themselves.

Commission’s latest move was against the disappearance of Jang’s senior correspondent, Mohammad Askari, who was picked up by unknown cops and plainclothesmen, pushed into police mobile and kept in detention for two days without any warrant or case. Commission asked the authorities to immediately free him as its unlawful and illegal detention. Askari was freed and unknown ‘kidnappers’ dropped him near Sohrab Goth, on the outskirts of Karachi.

While Askari was released there is still no clue of another journalist/anchor Imran Riaz Khan, who disappeared some 50 days back and despite all court orders of Lahore High Court could not be recovered or freed.

With cases of journalist disappearance, impunity on the rise and the media being told ‘what to report and what not to, failing which they could face consequences, depending on the ‘merit’ of the case it is very unlikely that the media would be free to report on Elections-2023. With the policy of ‘carrot and stick’, media, from print to electronic, is certainly not editorially free due to ‘outside interference’ and intimidation.

A ‘million-dollar’ question is can Pakistani media bodies form one platform for fighting for freedom of the press and ensuring people’s right to know?

Free media and free polls are the needs of the hour. Civilian governments and political parties need to improve their track record as far as freedom of the press is concerned.

The journalist is a columnist and analyst for GEO, Jang and The News.