Stifling the press
A “WALKING shadow”. A “poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage/ And then is heard no more”. A “tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing”. Shakespeare was describing life. He could as easily have been writing about the state of Pakistan’s media.
On television screens, pundits screech and pontificate. Online, tweets and retweets document righteous fury and differing opinions. On radio, DJs chatter late into the night. In print, columnists fill column inches with feisty words, punctuation serving in place of pounding fists. But this is all noise without substance.
State attempts to control Pakistan’s independent media are near complete. The Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority, approved by the cabinet last week, is the formal trapping confirming what has long been implicitly known: there is no appetite for press freedom in Pakistan today. The PMRA will bring all media — print, broadcast, digital — under the control of one regulator that will dictate rules, licensing and punitive measures.
The PMRA’s approval should be the fillip that unites the media.
The consolidation of media regulation is particularly damaging to print media, historically perceived as the industry’s ‘release valve’, able to publish content that could not be broadcast owing to its limited readership. Beyond the centralisation of control, the PMRA also reeks of authoritarianism because it disregards the concerns of stakeholders such as media associations.
But the PMRA is not damaging in isolation. It comes as the culmination of a more than a decade-long campaign to stifle the press. This has been multipronged, entailing journalists’ intimidation and killing, stoking rivalries between media outlets, issuing backchannel directives about what can and cannot be published or broadcast, clampdowns on papers’ circulation, blocking channels and websites, silencing online voices.
The PMRA seems especially excessive because this campaign has been so effective. A report published last year by the Committee to Protect Journalists highlighted the widespread practice of self-censorship, with journalists conceding that they did not comment on no-go issues for fear of being sacked, harassed, killed (notably, journalists’ identified fear of retaliation by militant groups as another driver of self-censorship alongside pressure from state institutions). Against this backdrop, the PMRA will sanction overt censorship, beyond that which is already being done.
The PMRA’s approval should be the fillip that unites the media industry to coordinate its response to this attack on press freedom. The divisiveness within the industry has been a key reason for the state’s success in encroaching on freedoms so far. A first step could be for the independent media to reconsider self-censorship as the prime strategy for dodging strong-arming by the state, which will increase under the PMRA.
Self-censorship is a win-win for the state. It enables the semblance of a free and vibrant press — the sound and fury that the government can tout at international fora as proof of Pakistan’s democratic credentials — all the while signifying nothing, failing to report the truth, failing to hold state institutions accountable, failing to inform the citizenry.
By resorting to self-censorship, the independent media has hidden the extent to which it is cowered from its audiences, and left itself open to charges of venality and avarice. Pakistan’s middle classes have become accustomed to criticising what they read and watch, without demanding to learn what information is being denied to them.
Journalists must remember that the press comprises the country’s public record. It is what will become history, and what will inform future national narratives. Self-censorship, by definition, leaves things unsaid, without revealing that what is documented is merely a coerced sampling of available information. By self-censoring, the media becomes complicit in the authoritarian project of coining a unified, imposed narrative about the country, its politics, its predicaments and potential.
There is a reason why our senior journalists and editors, when confronted with press censorship under Zia, chose to black out columns to indicate when the military regime objected to certain content. This let the public know the conditions under which the press was operating. And while it didn’t help people learn what they were not being told, it empowered them to understand that they did not have the complete story. Such awareness helped fuel the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, and kept the appetite for civilian rule alive through dark times.
History will view the formation of the PMRA as a low for the PTI government, confirmation of its undemocratic agenda and subservience to Pakistan’s real power brokers. But it will equally judge the media’s response to such draconian measures. Rather than be reduced to a “tale told by an idiot”, the independent media should seriously consider how it will write the story of resistance.