Media in chains
By: Marvi Sirmed
In what appeared to be an extremely shocking piece to me, Neha Ansari, a former staffer of Daily Express Tribune, narrated how the modern censorship works in media. Her article appeared last week as a blog-post on South Asia section of the blogazine, Foreign Policy. Ms. Ansari revealed how the establishment (let me use this euphemism for you know who) had put pressure on different media houses and dictated the policy. The events in question were the sit-ins and the ‘container speeches’.
Not surprisingly though, her exposé went conveniently ignored by the entire media including those she had pointed to with their names. Except some voices here and there on social media, no one dared to even comment on it. Even lone voices from random journalists claimed “army didn’t do it”. We didn’t see a single tweet rebutting her claims from a “uniformed” twitter account that was once quick to refute the Prime Minister of this country. Surprised?
Anyone who calls the Pakistani media ‘free’, even after having a cursory view of how it behaved during the container crisis, needs to get their head examined. The vicious hounding of the democratic government was not the first in Pakistan’s history. Once upon a time, a “big” media group championed the cause of bringing down the government in collusion with the judiciary. Many among us were well aware of the stark conflict of interests there. Media owners were looking at saving taxes, but as they say, there are no free lunches under the light blue sky, so they had to oblige the judges who wanted positive media attention.
Leaving aside the bigwigs that own media houses as their side business to secure their main enterprises, the rest of the ‘working-class’ journalists have been largely disappointed on the choices made by their bosses. If you start counting the names of media houses that did not oblige the establishment over last many years, you would probably not go beyond naught. The tradition of controlling the media is an old one, dating back to the first few years of the last century when the Englishman tried every possible option to manipulate the indigenous and politically charged media of the time. By enacting appropriate laws they turned censorship onto law.
But then, that was imperialism at work. One was hoping it would change with the freedomour nation acquired in 1947.Things remained almost the same… under Mohammad AliBogra, Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (who invented the National Press Trust to control media), Zia ul Haq, throughout the decade of controlled democracy – and during Musharraf’s ‘enlightened moderation’ too. Contrary to the propaganda that Musharraf’s was an era of free media, he exercised ferocious control.
As opposed to the old tactics of closing down the newspapers (closure of Daily Kohistan as a case in point), under Musharraf, one saw a rather smart tactic of hounding individual journalists when they dissented and establishing a controllable tier of media industrialists.
It’s that very tier that is haunting us today. How difficult it would be for a sitting or retired colonel to call a media owner and dictate policy? How difficult would it be for the media industrialist to know how his refusal could affect his primary business? Why wouldn’t he ask his CEO to silently oblige or leave? Where is freedom?
After Ms. Ansari’s blogpost, I asked over a dozen senior journalists if they ever felt military’s pressure during the entire container saga? Almost all of them – the working journalists with credibility – had felt it. Many said on conditions of anonymity that they were witness to phone calls being made to CEOs etc., whereby policy was being dictated to them in favor of Imran Khan and Tahir ul Qadri and against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. When asked about the kind of coverage Khan and Qadri got, NusratJaveed, senior journalist and anchor on Aaj TV said that media in general, not specifically his network, provided more airtime to dharna connected activities than they really deserved in pure professional context.
Senior Journalist and anchor on Aaj TV, Syed Talat Hussain was more candid in sharing his disgust on the overall conduct of media during the crisis. TV coverage of PAT-PTI protest, in his view, was “unprecedented both in scope and favorable tilt to the point of becoming a mouthpiece. This is unprecedented in recent media history of the sub-continent”. When asked whether he, during this time, ever got a direct dictation from ISPR or any other institution within armed forces, he said he wasn’t told by anyone to do anything but “I certainly was kept out of the loop of all main transmissions practically shutting my voice out”.
Army, if it was, was not the only actor to dictate the policy. As per many senior colleagues in media, the ruling party, if not the government, also used their business connections as well as their unique position of advantage to lure a section of media into being pro-government. But, says Talat Hussain, “in terms of scale and volume of coverage Imran and Qadri had a dream run of projection”.
Mohammad Ziauddin, a senior editor who left Express Tribune during the crisis for reasons he would resist revealing, sounded very disappointed that the hard earned freedom of media had been lost unwittingly. Every media owner, Mr. Ziauddin said,with the exception of those having editorial experience, wants to be a Murdoch of Pakistan and idealizes Mir Shakil ur Rehman in achieving power and riches through the selling of ethics.
The mighty Jang group had been pandering to the line given by the military establishment since long, till it grew to levels beyond their control. It had to be cut to size. Gone are the days when laws were enacted or used to close down media houses. We now have blasphemy allegations, ambushing of problematic journalists, coercing cable operators into suspending channels, burning copies of newspapers and religious and political puppets to instigating public anger on media houses. Better still, a change-mongering, revolution seeing political leader is asked to deliver angry speeches against certain media channels.
How can we believe our Army chief, when he goes to western countries and gives sermons against terrorism? If dramas like these are not stopped and rent-an-anchor or rent-a-channel practice is not contained, how can we know you have changed Sir?
The writer is an Islamabad based freelance columnist. email@example.com, @marvisirmed