Media and its maladies | Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Pakistan Press Foundation

Media and its maladies

Pakistan Press Foundation

A tangled web it is. We have this uneasy feeling of being in a deep crisis that we cannot easily decipher. One would expect the media to untangle it for the benefit of the nation. But the media itself has become the national enigma. At the same time, other major institutions are faltering and seem unable to resolve their inner contradictions.

So, is it essentially a matter of relations between the civilian and the military establishments? Or is the entire state of the national affairs a reflection of the imperfections, if not a total failure, of all our institutions? For instance, where are we headed in our bigoted dealings with the Taliban and who should we accept more credible in this engagement – the federal interior minister or the chief of the army?

Incidentally, I am writing these words in the forenoon of the World Press Freedom Day and one major headline in the newspapers is about Imran Khan boycotting the Jang/Geo group. I find this juxtaposition very interesting. After all, our political leaders do not generally understand or appreciate what press freedom is all about. For that matter, many in the media also seem to be very confused about it.

Irrespective of the ritualistic nature of the events and statements that mark a World Press Freedom Day, observed every year on the third of May, the state of the media in Pakistan in its various dimensions has attracted global attention. That vile attempt to assassinate Hamid Mir in Karachi has stirred up a hornets’ nest. It has raised some very difficult questions about the role of the media and threats that are posed to its freedom.

Since this is a valid subject for comment this week, I would like to begin with some observations made by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. As a member of the commission’s central council, I attended its deliberations in Lahore a week ago. We had a detailed and candid debate on the human rights situation in the country. Naturally, the media crisis also came under discussion. And it figured in the formal statement that was released on Monday.

Let me quote: “HRCP expresses alarm at efforts to curb freedom of the media through intimidations and threats of legal action. At the same time, it is deeply concerned at the ongoing war of words between large media groups, which it considers a setback to freedom of the media and its ability to criticise the military establishment”.

In addition, the statement said that “the media is also failing in its duty to encourage rational debate and to promote a culture of tolerance”.

What bothers me more in this respect is that after more than ten years of independent television channels and their supposedly unbridled freedom and the power to influence public opinion, the Pakistani society has become more violent, intolerant and socially conservative. Our electronic media seems to have activated somewhat primitive passions at the popular level, as occasional eruptions of fanaticism would certify.

I do realise that issues that relate to the role of the media become hard to fathom in a largely illiterate country of low political culture that is as bereft of material as intellectual resources. Not only patriotism but also religion becomes the last refuge of so many of the wielders of power and authority. In this deadly environment, freedom of the media is likely to become a casualty. Consequently, professional and ethical standards do not rise.

This week, Amnesty International has released a special report with this caption: ‘A bullet has been chosen for you: attack on journalists in Pakistan’. It said that journalists in Pakistan live under the constant threat of killings, harassment and other violence from all sides, including intelligence services, political parties and armed groups like the Taliban. The report is based on extensive field research into 70 cases and interviews with over 100 media workers in Pakistan.

This is what the attack on Hamid Mir has flamingly underlined. That Pakistan is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists is well-documented. Eleven journalists were killed in the country in 2013 while performing their duties. This is only one aspect of the security situation that has made Pakistan a kingdom of fear. Can a free media flourish in these circumstances?

But the absence of rational debate in the media, I think, is a more complex issue. At one level, it is related to our ruling ideas and to the quality of our democracy. By any measure, the process of social change in Pakistan remains stunted. There is no rule of law and the security institutions are losing their authority. Look at how the operation in Karachi that began in September last year has evolved.

Indeed, on Friday the MQM staged a day of mourning after the discovery of the mutilated bodies of four of their activists earlier in the week. Less than two weeks after joining the Sindh government, it has given a notice of 72 hours to, yes, the Sindh government to recover the MQM’s missing workers. According to one report, 3,218 people were killed in Karachi in 2013 and this figure is 14 percent higher than that of 2012.

As for the World Press Freedom Day, it could be merely a diversion for the media professionals in Pakistan because they are engaged in dealing with their own problems and contradictions. It is a sad and divisive phase in the history of our media. The tempo of discord is rising, one indication of which is the attack mounted by Imran Khan. The stage is also being set for the PTI’s mass protest to be launched on the first anniversary of last year’s national elections.

Also in the fray is Tahirul Qadri. He has the capacity of delivering a lot of thrills and expectations, though his winter march on the citadel of Islamabad before the elections was an anticlimax. Can he do better in the midst of a hot summer? With both Imran and Tahirul Qadri playing their games, is there a plan somewhere to destabilise the present arrangement?

In London, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said that the government, media and army must work together to take Pakistan out of the multifarious and serious crises facing the motherland. It may be noted that he has identified the triumvirate of power in the country. And he has also recognised that Pakistan is faced with multifarious and serious crises.

What are these crises? Let me quote Thursday’s banner headlines from three English newspapers. ‘Military believes in democracy, Constitution: Gen Raheel’. ‘Insurgents must accept state’s writ, says COAS’. ‘Army chief warns ‘rebels of the state’’.

The writer is a staff member. Email:

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