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Politics and Media

Existential crisis for media in Pakistan

News media in Pakistan has been under siege for some time – both from within and without. It is simultaneously experiencing a state-imposed censorship as well as the one enforced by some non-state actors. On top of all that, self-censorship is pervasive across Pakistani newsrooms, having seriously negative consequences for the evolution of democracy and civil liberties in the country.

Media persons across Pakistan are also operating under a constant threat of physical violence from the state’s security and intelligence agencies as well as from non-state individuals and entities that usually comprise religious, sectarian and even political groups – sometimes also including the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). These individuals and entities have often imposed restrictions on media coverage that, by their own reckoning, may show them in a not-so-positive way. Many of them also name and shame journalists who they perceive to be portraying their opponents positively. They often threaten to attack journalists and their offices on the flimsiest of pretexts. In many recently recorded cases, they, indeed, have done so.

The twin issues of journalists’ physical safety and their freedom to report and write have been further complicated by an ongoing tussle between the government and the media owners, particularly those of three legacy media houses – Dawn Media Group, Jang/Geo Group and Nawa-i-Waqt Group. This tug of war has led to a drastic decrease in government advertisement for news media outlets in general and these three groups in particular. Consequently, journalists are increasingly losing their job security while at the same time they are working under a vicious censorship regime as the owners of media houses try to stay on the right side of the government as well as other powerful institutions of the state, especially the military and the superior judiciary. According to Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, more than 2,000 media workers, including many journalists, have been laid off since late 2018. Many others have been forced to accept pay cuts in return for keeping their jobs. Several newspapers and television channels have shut down in the same period and many more are facing acute uncertainly about their future.

Expanding regulation as a tool of censorship

These problems may aggravate if and when the government’s plan to create a single regulator, the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA), proposed in late 2018, to oversee the working of all types of news media – print, broadcast and online – materializes. While a single regulator may make sense given the convergence of technologies used in the production and dissemination of news, the track record of existing government-appointed regulators does not inspire the confidence that it will limit its mandate to regulation and will not indulge in any censorship. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), for instance, is infamous for having taken arbitrary actions against freedom of expression while also having overlooked some of the most egregious examples of hate speech, slander and incitement to violence.

Many observers apprehend that the proposed PMRA will be akin to the revival of an older censorship regime – imposed through the colonial-era practice of issuing press advice as well as by the implementation of the (now defunct) Press and Publications Act, another pre-independence colonial relic that, between the middle of 1950s and the end of the 1980s, was used by the state extensively to shut down independent media outlets and silence its critics among journalists. They suspect that the creation of the PMRA, in fact, is a ploy to give the government and the state a powerful lever to control the digital and the print media which have largely operated outside an official regulatory regime.

The news media, on the other hand, is bitterly divided. Journalists and media owners have never agreed on wages and compensation. Their disagreement has only strengthened recently due to an ongoing spate of layoffs and pay cuts. Journalists believe the owners of media houses never shared the dividends of their profits with their workers when the going was good for them (between 2002 and early 2018) but they have resorted to layoffs and pay cuts the moment their earnings have gone down (starting in late 2018). The owners like to argue that there is limit to the financial setbacks that they can sustain and that the post-fall of 2018 squeeze in their revenues (by some measures, amounting to 35% compared to the preceding year) means that they either have to shut shop or at least cut costs to stay put.

State policies set up free media into a perpetual vulnerability

Almost all of the reasons for censorship, and at least some of the financial problems being experienced by the news media in Pakistan, can be traced to how the state and the political system have evolved – or not evolved – in Pakistan. Since the very beginning in 1947, the state has sought to legitimize itself by championing religion (read Islam) and creating – and also continuously building – its military capability as a means to secure itself against real and perceived threats from its larger neighbor to the east, India. The latter factor has contributed immensely to the militarization of both the state and the society, making it mortally threatening for dissidents, the members of religious minorities and groups or communities that do not fully subscribe to a security-dominated state ideology to even express themselves. Political activists from Sindh, northwestern regions bordering Afghanistan and vast swathes of Balochistan are seen – and also often portrayed in mainstream news media -- as troublemakers at best and foreign agents at worst.

The former factor has furthered these trends in other spheres of national life. It has helped the emergence of multiple religious and communal groups as self-assumed promoters and protectors of religion’s preeminent position in the state and the society. Their public mobilization activities -- often accentuated by mob violence, rioting and targeted attacks against their critics and opponents -- have contributed immensely to the evolution of a polity that is highly exclusionary and is also utterly unconducive to the freedom of expression in general and the freedom of the press in particular. They have specially chosen women, religious minorities and liberal critics of the state as their enemies and have tried to ensure, mostly successfully, that any conversation about human rights, religious freedoms and civil liberties remains confined to the fringes of news media. Unsurprisingly, these subjects are mostly covered only by either the English language newspapers with small circulation or by the regional language news media with a limited geographical outreach.

The military and the religious forces, for all practically purposes, have been in alliance during almost all of the country’s history. The military has, either directly and explicitly or indirectly and implicitly, supported religious parties and groups in order to undermine other political elements. This has been obvious from how it promoted sectarian activism and rightwing conservatism in the central province of Punjab in the 1980s to undermine the Pakistan Peoples’ Party, founded in 1968 by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who in 1973 became a democratically elected prime minister, the country’s first, but was hanged during a subsequent military regime in 1979. The military has also used religious groups to tackle centrifugal regional and/or ethnic elements so that a single, Islam-based identity for Pakistan could override all other makers and markers of identity. This was exactly the case with al-Badr and al-Shams militias manned by the activists of a religious rightwing party, Jamaat-e-Islami, who in 1970 fought alongside the Pakistan military against Bengali nationalists in what was then the eastern part of Pakistan but is now independent Bangladesh.

Some Pakistani religious groups have also trained their cadres to fight in Indian-ruled part of Kashmir (since 1989) and in Afghanistan (since 1979). In both cases, they have acted as an extension of the strategic and regional objectives of the security and intelligence agencies. That Pakistan’s news media has been almost entirely supportive of these interventions to the extent of portraying the former as a jihad against the infidels and seeing the latter as a largely justifiable war against foreign invasion – first against the Soviets and now against the Americans – is a proof of the public approval for these endeavors. The most significant outcome of the coming together of the military and the mullahs has been a lopsided development of the country’s politics. The first and the foremost impact of this lopsidedness has been that civilian institutions -- such as political parties, the parliament and a free and independent press – have remained highly under-developed. A domineering security apparatus that seeks to wield its authority in the name of national unity predicated on a unified religious identity, in the meanwhile, has continued to grow.

All this explains why the military has come into power four times over the last 70 years and has directly ruled the country for almost half of that time. It also shines a spotlight on a rather limited public space for the news media to operate in given the state’s ideological strictures. This situation has been only exacerbated by the news media’s heavy financial reliance on tax breaks, state subsidies and government advertising. Even during the democratic regimes, administrative and regulatory structures created by the military regimes have often not just survived but also thrived. If, in rare cases, civilian-democratic governments have been able to replace or revoke those structures, they did not rule long and autonomously enough to be able to ensure their survival after their own removal. These governments also found themselves unable to do anything about a societal hangover of the military governments that often peddled one or other form of religious mobilization to keep themselves in power.

On of the biggest casualty of these developments, of course, has been the evolution of a free, independent market-driven news media. Though it has experienced bouts of robust growth, regime changes – from a civilian one to a military one -- have almost always wiped out those gains. The current travails of news media coming as they do after an almost uninterrupted period of growth and freedom since 2002 make it obvious that such gains, both in terms of earnings and the ability to publish and broadcast freely and independently, remain fragile at best.

Susceptible to political manipulation despite often heroic resistance

The absence of an even and smooth evolution of a democratic and inclusive state and society has allowed the dominant individuals, groups and entities to use the news media for their cultural, political and economic objectives. An urban, educated elite – comprising businesspeople, intelligentsia and civilian and military bureaucracy – has been better able to use its clout to get more representation in the news media than vast swathes of rural population [LINK Society]; religious personalities and parties have had more – and more positive – coverage than regional, ethnicity-based political parties and their leaders have; and strongmen generals and dictators have usually received more favorable coverage than elected civilian governments have.

Religious minorities, women, laborers and peasants have, similarly, found themselves in the news headlines only when something bad happens to them as compared to the socialites, the celebrities, religious preachers and pro-military propagandists who often hog a whole lot of media spotlight. Though in at least two instances news media has contributed to the downfall of military dictators (Ayub Khan in 1969 and Pervez Musharraf in 2008) and a number of politically-affiliated media organizations have publicly critiqued and opposed the military and supported democratic politics and politicians (mostly in the 1960s-1970s and also in the late 2000s), the news media’s contribution towards democracy has been on the wane in recent years.

Political parties and media – forever frenemies

While the state – particularly the military part of it – always wants to control the news media, various Pakistani governments have traditionally used both strong arm tactics and financial tools to suppress, confront and, in some extreme instances, even eliminate the news media outlets. In some cases, even political parties have used their street power to threaten both journalists and the media houses. The most significant example in this regard is that of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a party that has a mass support base in the cities of Karachi and Hyderabad among the decedents of Urdu-speaking migrants who came to Pakistan from India in 1947. At its heyday during the 1980s through to the early 2010s, the party would often siege newspaper offices, set newspaper delivery vans on fire, force cable operators to switch off television channels and even manhandle the members of the press if and when it felt slighted by the media coverage – or an absence thereof.

Most mainstream political parties, however, support the freedom of the press – at least when they are in opposition. After getting into power, though, they have taken only a few practical steps to ensure the financial and editorial independence of the news media. The most significant manifestation of this duplicitous attitude is their treatment of Radio Pakistan and Pakistan Television. When out of power, political parties criticize the government of the day for using these two broadcasters as propaganda and public relations tools – rather than as disseminators of publicly important and useful information. In power, all of them without an exception do the same: using them as propaganda and public relations tools.

Media – influenced in inverse distance from centers of power

News media coverage of a party, a political group or a community increases or decreases in inverse proportion to its distance from the centers of power. Greater the distance, lesser the coverage and vice versa. Physically, the centers of power are located in Karachi, Pakistan’s financial and industrial hub, Lahore, the political and cultural heartland of the country, and Islamabad, the administrative capital. The parties, groups and communities living away from these cities often find space in the inner pages of newspapers and at the tail end of television news bulletins – if they do at all.

The putative distance of a party, a political group or a community from the center is mostly determined by the military headquarters in Rawalpindi, a city adjacent to Islamabad. As the ultimate arbiter of both the political and media space in the country, the military measures this distance in strictly ideological terms: Those advocating the security-centered and religion-driven ideology of the state – sanctioned and supported by the military – inevitably get covered more than anyone else.

Divided they stand, united they fall!

At one stage, in the 1960s, trade unions and associations of journalists were so strong that they observed many nation-wide strikes, bringing newspapers publishing to a halt on a number of occasions. They also forced the government in 1960 to constitute what is known as the national wage bard award to regulate the salaries of print media employees. During the dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq, too, journalist unions were in the vanguard of protests for civil liberties and the restoration of democracy. Many prominent journalist leaders were jailed by Zia regime; a number of others were banned from writing and reporting; some were even publicly flogged.

But, as things stand today, factionalism and groupings among journalists are rife. Occasionally based on political differences, often driven by ethnic, regional and religious considerations and almost always bolstered by petty personal and group interests, these factions are often pitted against each other over non-issues. Consequently, journalists do not have effective trade unions and associations to plead their case over the lack of job security and editorial freedoms. This has been so for the last two decades even when, ironically, the total number of journalists in country has increased ten-fold in the same period of time.

Owners of the media houses, too, are split along multiple lines and their representative bodies, such as the All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS) and the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA), are similarly riddled with factionalism and internal schisms. Their elections, rather than being the expressions of a free will of their members, have become well-recorded exercises in rigging and manipulation. It was because of the same reasons that the Council of Pakistan Newspapers Editors (CPNE), an editors’ guild of sorts, split down the middle in 2017. Even though the two factions have reconciled since then, the council has lost its relevance entirely mainly because most news organizations have done way with professional editors and, instead, hoisted family members of the owners to those positions.  

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