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Is press freedom under seige in Pakistan?

Zeeshan Shah, a media broadcaster highlights how Pakistani media has been facing unprecedented curbs over the last few years which makes us wonder if our media is under siege. The degeneration of freedom of the press in Pakistan can be measured from the fact that Pakistan has slipped by six points from 139th position in 2017 to 145th in 2020 on the World Press Freedom Index.

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A recent 2021 report published by RSF- Reporters without Borders indicates that journalism is under serious threat in over 73 countries globally as per the World Press Freedom Index rating, indicating difficult times for media outlets and World Press Freedom Index. Media has always been the leading change-maker for many nations including Pakistan. Currently, Pakistan ranks at 145 on the index and the future trends are not showing a very positive outlook on how media will operate as the watchdog of the nation. The data indicates that many journalists are finding it extremely difficult to pursue and report sensitive stories.

The ups and downs of media communication

Going back a few years in 2018, communications and media went through unprecedented lows and highs, in a political battle between an old regime accused of corruption and an upcoming new regime that promised future reforms for progressive media reforms. Sometimes we are shown a different narrative than the actual state of events. If recalled correctly, the authorizes in Pakistan had blocked the transmission of the Voice of America broadcast at the time, citing the reason that they were promoting anti-state elements inside Pakistan, campaigning for provincial rights.

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Contrary to the popular notion, it was all part of a dubious campaign by foreign elements, timed to adversely impact fresh party elections. Nevertheless, the media policy was carefully revamped and negative anti-state content was barred to ensure a free and fair election campaign that culminated in the formation of the new government rule under new leadership and a promise of ‘justice’.

Here, a new chapter was written in media history, being the first time ever that all media institutions, journalists, bloggers, editors and heads of media institutions were invited by the Head of State for an ‘open dialogue’- a series of live events discussing media best practices and strategies through way-forward planning sessions. There was no risk to freedom of speech or attacks on free media by the government identified at the time.

Moving forward, Pakistan’s fight for a new more progressive nation continues as the government faces a new challenge today. The recent announcement by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting on the formation of PMDA-Pakistan Media Development Authority has led to a strong media backlash by channels, newspapers and other media entities, on new fines imposed in the bill, for up to PKR 250 million. The draft bill has been submitted to courts for review in what seems like the strongest regulatory move in recent times.

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There are two sides to every story

Some are terming it to be the “black law”, while others are speculating it as a new system of ‘coercive censorship’, where media freedom is being severely curtailed which may damage the constitutional right of the public to free information. There are fears of a backlash in case the proposed law is put into action, in a time when media organizations are already under severe financial constraints with the industry going through revenue losses and staff grievances.

A recent new notification by the establishment division stating that no government employees barring government employees from using social media platforms without prior approval also hints at an uneasy policy direction. It is not yet known whether this will come under PTA or PMDA, as PEMRA regulates all radio and television. Hence more clarity needs to be sought here, as it does not clarify the stance on others like politicians.

On the other hand, through PMDA, the government promises to ensure more focus on credible media transmissions across the board with a strong focus on Pakistani culture with 30% of all electronic media to air local Pakistani content, in line with the vision of a brighter Pakistan. Another important factor here to consider is the timing of the decision. Based on the situation in South Asia with special emphasis on the Afghanistan situation across the border, there are fears of an international media attack on Pakistan by the Western Media as cyber-proxy wars are on the rise. The emergence of PMDA may also be conceived as a deterrent against cybercrime and the reckless use of media channels by opposition groups, be it local or global forces.

If we look closely at the post-2018 events again, we may find a number of incidents where the media played a major role with the government to challenge the status quo, bringing forth a nationwide accountability drive against financial corruption and white-collar crimes, fiscal indiscipline and bad governance, exposing major money trails leading to major indictments. All this was done through excellent investigative journalism. Despite rumors of dissent and atrocities on journalists at the time, it was one of the best years in history for press freedom and media, recording the lowest number of attacks on journalists as compared to the earlier three to five years.

Read more: Fawad Chaudhry calls out foreign media for publishing fake news against Pakistan

Apparently, history has taught us nothing

Let us go further. In 2019, a more transparent system of governance was evolving changing the historic media footprint within Pakistan, reaffirming the positive image of Pakistan all over the globe. Here again, the government and media were hands in glove to ensure that external threats of freedom of speech were mitigated.

Special focus was laid upon violation of laws, through regulatory bodies like PEMRA against malicious and derogatory content. The government introduced many public welfare initiatives like housing for the poor, environmental protection schemes, digital media access through various portals, reduction in prices and famous “Green Initiatives”. Some of these actions reached worldwide acclaim including the Billion Tree Tsunami scheme that led to new employment and job security for the masses.

Not many saw that as a pressure tactic by the government against the media.  There was a strong public opinion at the time that conspiracies to undermine the judicial system and good governance were exposed through media as the strong arm of the state of Pakistan. One of the key breakthroughs of the time was the identification of corrupt malpractices of the past governments, who were using media channels to propagate absolute power politics, concealing sources of illegal funds and damaging the image of the country in the global world.

Read more: Editorial: Unending politics of Pakistan Bar Council and media

Where did things start to change?

Naturally, when the government took on the herculean task of bringing transformative reforms in the country, a lot more money trails were exposed. Unfortunately, many sectors were impacted in the war against corruption and some media channels also went under scrutiny, with the management under investigation. Media channels found to have been involved in wrongful reporting of facts were reprimanded by the regulators and fines were imposed.

This led to heavy overhead costs for media companies resulting in staff attritions, cutbacks and rightsizing affecting many families as jobs were limited and staff salaries were held back or slashed drastically. In recent years, strict vigilance by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and effective monitoring on the financial irregularities have further reduced cases of ‘yellow journalism’ and positively reduced the culture of ‘kickbacks’ in the sector.

So what is the fuss all about?

Due to the pandemic, it has been a difficult year for the media sectors, similar to many sectors and the cost of doing business has spiked. Under the new PMDA laws, there will be more financial inconvenience for all media companies as previously it was easier for companies to pay the nominal fine of PKR 1 million via PEMRA, as compared to the PKR 250 million in applicable fines. There is imminent fear across the media that such heavy costs may lead to the closure of companies if they fail to comply.

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Looking carefully, it is easy to see through a frame of reference here. All that talk about violation of human rights, accusations of injustice, disruption of press freedom and coercive censorship is mainly due to the nature of ‘financial accountability” and nothing more, as the war against corruption picks up momentum. It has little to do with the country’s image being tarnished, a narrative being floated at the moment.

Yet another ongoing debate over the attempts to dismantle the governance process is doing rounds as the government moves to cope up with rising crimes with an aim to establish ‘rule of law’ against repeat criminal offenders to win public confidence-a road less traveled by past governments. The formation of PMDA defines a radical change of system and brings in the rule of law as the key component on ‘ethics and accountability”.

We cannot disregard the fact the anti-state rhetoric has been seen in the past where the involvement of foreign elements was been identified and sorted out effectively by the state of Pakistan. Keeping that in mind, any attempts to discredit the government will most likely become counter-productive. Whether this becomes the re-emergence of Draconian policies of the past era, is something that will be seen in the future once the laws are implemented into the system of governance.

The recommended route for media organizations is to maintain a positive dialogue with the government to find a middle solution and create a win-on-win solution for Pakistan.

Zeeshan Shah is a media broadcaster and tweets @zeeshan82445998. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

 

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