Monday May 27, 2024

Playing the media game

By Ghazi Salahuddin
September 05, 2021

If you tell me who your favourite panelists are on news channels’ talk-shows, I will tell you what your political leanings are. And if you confess to being a regular viewer of these shows, I will know that your understanding of the state of affairs in this country is pathologically deficient.

But if you ask me what you should do to get a truthful picture of what is happening and make sense of the national drift, I will have to keep my mouth shut. No, there seems no way to find the answers of some straightforward questions or come across information in the public sphere that is relevant and authentic.

There are many aspects of how a meaningful conversation on matters of prime public interest must be conducted – in the media and on other institutional platforms. This would be necessary to not only build an informed public opinion but also to decipher the national sense of direction.

What I am trying to say (and what I am obviously not being able to be precise and candid about) is that an open and free discourse on crucial national issues is of a much larger significance than the present impasse on what freedom of the media means between the government and the media organisations. However, it is the media that opens the door to an entire vista of national liberation and intellectual development.

A tussle between the media and the government has been building up for some time. At the heart of this rather noxious engagement is the proposed Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA), which the media organisations see as an instrument designed to control and suppress the media.

Actually, the PMDA is not a bright new idea because successive governments have sought to deal with the media through special – defined as ‘black’ by the media – laws. That the media landscape has radically changed does not much matter because of the inherent propensity of the rulers to stifle the voice of dissent. For this reason, it is natural for the media and the ruling authorities to have an adversary relationship.

What is striking is that media professionals honestly believe that it has never been as oppressive as now. It was bad during Zia’s time but there were some rules of the game. Now it is no-holds-barred. It is this dereliction of the present ruling arrangement that has made the issue of media freedom so tricky and hard to negotiate.

There have been a number of instances of journalists critical of the regime having been abducted, beaten and harassed. Even with CCTV evidence, the culprits are not arrested or traced. There are stories that are not told, though it is the duty of the media to do so. The world knows that Pakistan has become a dangerous country for journalists.

But the government of Imran Khan is not impressed by the findings of international media organisations. I will not go into where Pakistan figures in which list on freedom of expression and of media. It is a very dismal picture. Yet, the government sees it as some kind of a conspiracy in which some of Pakistan’s own media houses or professionals are deemed to be involved.

Incidentally, cases of harassment of journalists have now landed in superior courts. On Wednesday, the Islamabad High Court ordered that action should be taken against the FIA officials allegedly involved in arresting two journalists in Lahore. Chief Justice Athar Minallah remarked that the court had repeatedly asked to avoid harassing journalists who express their opinions on certain subjects.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has initiated suo-motu proceedings on press freedom and harassment of journalists. Initially, the case was launched with an application filed by reporters covering the Supreme Court and there was a diversion on legal issues relating to the powers of taking suo-motu notice.

Interestingly, the application filed by particular journalists was withdrawn at the outset of the court hearing on Monday. Investigative journalist Amir Mir, in his application for withdrawal, wrote that he had reasons to believe that he would not be able to get justice.

In any case, the Supreme Court has decided to continue the proceedings, invoking suo-motu jurisdiction. Justice Muneeb Akhtar observed that the hearing would continue even if the courtroom was empty because the issue involved fundamental rights of journalists. It was reported that the Supreme Court has resolved to put every state functionary on notice to make them realise that the court is watching to see why the constitutional duty of ensuring freedom of expression and of press is not being fulfilled.

If this raises one’s spirits with expectations of the media breaking its shackles of censorship, hang on for a minute. Consider the ground realities and the conduct of state functionaries. It seems incredible that they just do not concede that the media is in chains. Remember Imran Khan saying that the media in Pakistan has more freedom than it has in Britain?

This delusion has also kept the rulers from grasping the detrimental consequences of the media not playing its assigned role. Pakistan presents a good example of how a society begins to intellectually degenerate in the absence of a robust media that informs and educates the people and encourages rational debate to foster creative and inventive potential of the nation.

Sadly, lack of freedom also undermines the media’s own growth, including in a professional context. In a deeper sense, media freedom has a symbiotic relationship with academic freedom. But these arguments are valid primarily in a democratic setting where citizens have a genuine participation in power. A free media is meant to defend the freedom of the populace and become the voice of the vulnerable sections of society.

Are these the reasons they will not let the media to be free and strong and a catalyst for progressive change? And this means that we will have to make do with the talk-shows that we have, with the usual suspects in perpetual circulation from this to that channel. Enjoy.

The writer is a senior journalist.