World Press Freedom Day is being marked amidst silence this year, but this silence offers a possibility — of reflection, to see how the media fared and conducted itself in the past two decades
These are desperate times: the scary Covid-19 is upon the world; economies are being squeezed and along with them livelihoods; and uncertainty looms large as markets show no signs of recovery.
Desperate times lead to desperate measures. In our country, we responded by letting go of the special assistant to the PM for information, and replacing her with another special assistant and a full minister.
One government functionary being replaced with two may seem odd in these testing times, only if you have forgotten the childhood lesson — a stitch in time saves nine.
What is the job of an information minister, anyway?
Internet says it “is a position in the governments of some countries responsible for dealing with information matters, it is often linked with censorship and propaganda”.
Reading this, the current appointments start making sense. They have certainly brought more transparency to the system. If all state institutions being on the same page was not enough, the page will be all too visible now.
In some countries, economic compulsions are forcing big media companies — as big as the Times of India — to reduce costs through layoffs, salary cuts, leave reduction etc.
We were more prescient on this count and the media companies here started the process years earlier.
Here, independent journalists have been eased out and self-censorship is the new normal. Media houses are also being manipulated through taxes and advertising revenues. If any show resilience, their owners can be put behind bars on trumped-up charges.
There could not be a more ironic backdrop than this to celebrate the World Press Freedom Day. The way media has been punished into silence in the last year or so is draconian, to say the least.
As the All Pakistan Newspapers Society hails the new appointments in the Ministry of Information and newspapers hurry to carry big advertisements asking the newly-appointed team for a bailout package, it seems there is precious little left in terms of freedom of press in the emaciated media landscape.
The only concern now for most media houses is to run a successful business, even if it means colluding with the state. The chances of political dissent have already been minimised through a selective accountability mechanism.
There is silence no doubt, but silence offers a possibility — of reflection, to see how the media fared and conducted itself, say, in the last two decades to come to this point; to reflect if there was anything it could have done differently.
We are living in an age of excess of news and content. In comparison, the traditional mediums appear “partial, slow, and dispensable”. The smart phones make sure there is no clear break between the serious and flimsy, between news and memes. As someone wrote, when there is a plethora of information, the temptation is to click on shorter pieces or versions.
From print to electronic and from digital to social, the media underwent a sea change, in content and in ethics, owing so much to technological advancement.
A lot of it was embraced — at the expense of professionalism, ethics, responsibility and editorial policy.
It was embraced — for the sake of outreach that could now be measured, in the form of ratings, likes, re-tweets, shares. It was these numbers that literally translated into material gain, both for the individual journalist and her employer.
Interestingly, the tools of censorship evolved alongside these forms of media. If television claimed to be a mass medium with higher stakes, the controls were massive too. They came in the name of ‘national interest’, ‘security’, extremism, terrorism and so on.
The market may have played a role in the design of a programme or content (which all ended up being disgracefully similar) but there was always the mute button — to stop the narrative from getting out of hand. In worst cases, the channel was made to disappear or its position changed on the cable’s bouquet.
The digital and social media have had their own controls: if the bots and trolls didn’t work, there were laws such as the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016.
Independent voices who were hounded out of television sought refuge in social media platforms like YouTube — to be able to say what they liked. However, they soon found themselves in the company of state lackeys masquerading as journalists.
Alas, these lackeys, who feel no qualms in reading out the daily dose of nationalist nonsense and fake news, have hundreds of thousands of followers and subscribers.
The journey from television to digital and social media culminated it seems in the smart phone. With smart phones came new threats in the form of surveillance (the scale of which will massively escalate in the wake of Covid-19). The physical as well as gender-based threats and impunity for perpetrators have stayed constant for media-people.
We are living in an age of excess of news and content. In comparison, the traditional mediums appear “partial, slow, and dispensable”. The smart phones make sure there is no clear break between the serious and flimsy, between news and memes. As someone wrote, when there is a plethora of information, the temptation is to click on shorter pieces or versions. The data science, the on-camera footage, assures people at large that they don’t need a ‘biased’ intermediary to get to the ‘truth’. To distinguish between a conspiracy theorist and a professional journalist has become a real challenge in current times.
For us in Pakistan, the Press Freedom Day should come with the resolve to go back to doing independent, professional journalism that involves editorial checks and fair reporting.