For freer media -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

For freer media

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

The media continues to polarise opinion in Pakistani society. On the one side are those who insist that the media — and particularly television journalism — has started to play a revolutionary role in mobilising the public against abuses of power. The euphoria was initially generated by TV anchors and roaming reporters during the anti-Musharraf movement and now targets Zardari and his men. The other side — which includes but also extends much beyond Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) jayalas who defend their leader tooth and nail — is extremely critical of the media’s selective accountability drives.

My purpose in this article is to shed light on a classic example of selective media reporting which underlines the urgent need for a serious debate within our society about what truly constitutes a free media.

The series of events that I discuss here relates to an ongoing struggle of students of the Army Public College of Management and Sciences (APCOMS) in Rawalpindi which culminated on November 1 with the arrest of a handful of student organisers of the college on trumped-up charges of inciting unrest. APCOMS is one of many private educational institutions that have been set up in recent years by individuals affiliated with the armed forces. Enough has been written about the corporate initiatives of the armed forces and I do not need to repeat the obvious here. I wish only to raise questions about the media’s unwillingness and/or inability to objectively disseminate information.

APCOMS issues degrees of various kinds, including numerous sub-branches of engineering. All higher educational institutions in Pakistan must have their degrees accredited by relevant authorities; institutions awarding engineering degrees require clearance from the Pakistan Engineering Council (PEC). APCOMS has been in existence since 1999 yet to date the administration of the college has not bothered to even initiate the process of degree accreditation by the PEC.

Needless to say this is a very grave matter. Successive batches of engineering graduates of the college have been left high and dry — upon entering the world of competitive employment these young men and women have found that no potential employer is willing take their credentials as engineers seriously because their degrees are not recognised by the PEC. Apparently the APCOMS administration has promised each incoming batch of students that it will take care of what it has generally depicted a formality yet more than a decade since the inception of the college, and after raking in millions of rupees in fees, no meaningful steps have been taken.

Frustrated and angry, APCOMS students started token boycotts of classes on October 6 of this year. A week later the college administration made a commitment to start accreditation proceedings with the PEC for the umpteenth time. A few days later it became obvious to the students that no action had been taken and they resumed their strike. Their peaceful protest was restricted to holding sit-ins outside the main gate of the college and trying to generate media coverage so as to highlight their demands and pressurise the college administration to take the necessary steps.

The students did not expect much from their administration given their past experience. But, like many other ordinary people in Pakistan, they were enamoured of the newly emerging ‘free media’, and particularly the electronic press. Yet protest after protest received no coverage. The ‘free media’ started to appear not so free after all.

By the last week of October the college administration suspended nine ‘ring-leaders’ of the protest campaign and lodged an application against them at the local police station. On November 1 six of the nine were arrested and accused of coercing students into protesting and holding hostage those members of the faculty and female students that refused to participate in the strike. At least one major newspaper carrying the story of the arrest made no mention of the PEC or any other aspect of the student protest.

Students across the country protest various administrative abuses on a daily basis. A cursory survey of major newspapers and TV channels suggests that editors are quite happy to run stories of many such protests. Yet APCOMS has been magically exempt from public scrutiny via the media. Any objective observer would agree that there is no meaningful defence of the APCOMS administration for its refusal to secure PEC accreditation, yet what little has appeared in the media about the affair — and not for lack of trying — makes it appear as if a handful of students have incited unrest for no good reason.

Self-censorship in the media is an old phenomenon in Pakistan. Yet over the past two years there has been a noticeable upsurge in media representations of politics and politicians as inherently suspect and attendant representations of the military and military men as upright and patriotic. The students of APCOMS exercised their right to assemble and protest as a means of protecting their rights. If the media refuses to hold a college run by retired military men to account then it is forfeiting its right to be called free.

The fact that this article has been published at all means that there is yet hope for Pakistan’s long-suffering, information-consuming public. There are still ways and means for dissenting voices to make themselves heard. But more and more such voices find that they are struggling not only against the excesses of an all-powerful establishment but also against those who would like to be called defenders of the public interest. This cannot be a good thing for Pakistan’s fledgling democratic experiment.
Source: The News