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Pakistani Media: Freedom of Expression or Chaos Mongers

Syed Anwar Mehmood, who as Secretary Information with President Musharraf, was instrumental in shaping national laws to enable a free media, remembers those days and wonders what went wrong: Why has the media shunned all responsibility to become traders of chaos selling whatever sells?

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It is a year short of half a century. December 1971. We had just reported to the academy for training following our selection for the then Central Superior Services. We were called ISP probationers. Barely a week later, December 3, if I remember correctly, all-out war broke out between India and Pakistan. ISPR started conducting a daily Press briefing in what was then the InterContinental Hotel and is now the PC Hotel in Rawalpindi.

The Ministry of Information decided that we attend the briefing daily as part of our training. It was a unique experience indeed. Earlier, in March 1971, the federal government had bundled away all foreign journalists from the then East Pakistan. They drove to nearby Calcutta (now Kolkatta) in India, and thus all reporting on whatever was happening in the then East Pakistan was exclusively from the Indian prism. That was the first major setback Pakistan suffered on account of a decision devoid of any prudence and foresight.

The ISPR briefing was hardly informative though educative. I remember one Commodore Mumtaz of Pakistan Navy holding most of the briefing during which he held back more than he revealed. Perhaps all armies do that in wars. But he was clearly not equipped to handle such a battery of seasoned journalists from around the world nor perhaps was he himself briefed properly on the situation as it was developing. Ours was a special situation where the future of the other half of the country was at stake.

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Every briefing left us sad and disappointed. Our ISPR of today would be the envy of any military. What we had then was ill-informed and ill-equipped, a reflection of the then leadership which didn’t have its feet on the ground. Two weeks later, on December 16, the surrender at Dhaka took place. Our first exposure to media handling was thus a very sad one. A little over a year later in March 1973, I landed in the Press Information Department and for the next four years saw the state of the media in Pakistan in practice.

Jang and Nawai Waqt were the only two non-government owned Urdu dailies of consequence from Karachi to Peshawar. And Dawn was the only independent English language newspaper. The rest were all-state (read government) owned under the National Press Trust. And even those few that were privately owned were barely tolerated by the government. There were frequent bans of government advertisements and holding back or reducing newsprint quota whose import was then government-controlled.

There were other sticks too. Arrest and subsequent humiliation of the then editor of Dawn, Mr Altaf Gauhar, for writing an editorial unpalatable to Prime Minister Zulifiqar Ali Bhutto was the most distressing. But it was not the last. When the general elections were announced in 1977, the Press Information Department was asked to ensure that all newspapers carried on their front page in a specific size with a particular caption the photograph of Mr Bhutto as elected unopposed. That was the state of our media.

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Then came the martial law of General Zia ul Haq. Barely a few days after toppling Bhutto, he called a huge media conference during which he threatened to “hang by the….” anyone who thought he was a leftist. That was the sign of things to come. A decade of absolute media control. There was neither private radio nor any television. The government thus had a nearmonopoly on the dissemination of news and views. It remained so or almost so for another decade and more even during the civilian elected governments of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. The only difference was the launch and demise of a few privately owned newspapers.

Later, the liquidation of NPT owned newspapers was the only major development. As Press Secretary to the then Prime Minister in 1991-93, my greatest stress was managing his coverage in the Dawn; late Majeed Nizami owned Nawai Waqt and The Muslim in Islamabad. The rest were manageable. The late Mir Khalil ur Rahman was both independent and professional but was also pragmatic. It was not until his demise and takeover of the Jang group by Mir Shakil ur Rahman that successive governments and the group came at loggerheads more than once. Pakistani media had now started flexing muscles, sometimes for the right reasons, sometimes for commercial and personal ones.

And then came the takeover by General Musharraf who, in his very first address to the nation, declared media reforms as one of his priorities. His first Information Minister was Mr Javed Jabbar, a media practitioner of much acumen, experience and insight. He is a wowed liberal in a positive sense. Taking a cue from Gen Musharraf, he immediately started working on a project to allow private ownership of the electronic media. He, however, left the Cabinet in October 2000, when I was appointed as the Federal Secretary for Information and Broadcasting. For almost a year and a half, no Info Minister was appointed.

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So, under the rules, President Musharraf was the Information Minister. Picking up the threads, I worked for a year to put together five media-related laws with the full support of the President. This was early 2002, and he was then wearing four hats: COAS, CJCSC, Chief Executive and the President and was firmly saddled. There was no movement, no agitation, and no clamor for liberating the media. Yet, he extended his full support as I piloted the media laws in the cabinet. We thus adopted the PEMRA law enabling launching of private TV and radio channels, the Freedom of Information Ordinance, the Defamation law, the Press Council law and the Press and Publications law which had expired years ago stopping grant of declarations to aspiring publications.

To his lasting credit, Gen Musharraf overruled many dissenting voices in his cabinet to allow the Ministry to implement these laws which were the result of his belief rather than any pressure from any quarter. I say this without meaning to undermine the many sacrifices rendered and struggle undertaken by many free media campaigners in the previous decades many of whom did not live to see the change that these laws brought on the Pakistani media landscape.

Unfortunately, after nearly two decades, while free media has proliferated, it has failed to develop quality in its content nor the much needed editorial responsibility. Watching our news channels, we find nothing but statements of accusations and counter-accusations by our politicians, crime and hate, slander and cheap entertainment. It is politics and crime 24/7. The argument is what sells. So, if trash is what sells, that is what you will get. No wonder important national issues, economy, health and education are all a no in our so-called free media.

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The majority of those staffing them are poorly educated with little or no professional training and certainly no specialization. Professional editorial oversight is rare. How long will the country endure this state of the media is difficult to say for it is all going on in the name of free media. The government thus shies away from any action as does the regulator. We will thus continue to have more of the same. The regret is that before allowing private ownership of electronic media, we failed to bind the licensees to universally accepted codes and standards.

Syed Anwar Mehmood retired as a Secretary to the Government of Pakistan in 2008 after heading the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting. Mr Anwar joined the Central Superior Services (CSS) of Pakistan in November in 1971. He has been the head of many media organizations as Chief Executive or as the Chairman of the Board, including PTV, PBC, SRBC, APP and the Press Information Department.

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