Controlled by the ‘unknown’

August 9, 2020

In a country where laws have been made to gag the press, ‘dissent’ is unacceptable

Matiullah Jan is a well-respected journalist. Like many journalists he struggles to find a suitable job not because of a lack of professional ability but due to his courage to ‘dissent’. Thus, news TV channels and newspapers have become no-go areas for him. Still, he is not willing to compromise his principles. What happened to him last month, when he was abducted, threatened, roughed up and then freed after nearly 10 hours, has happened to other journalists elsewhere in the country.

I have known Mati for some time. I used to like his show, Apna Gareban, a TV talk show on the accountability of journalists and media houses. It created quite a stir in the journalist community but in the end had to be shut down as no channel was comfortable with such a show.

I didn’t agree with some of the content in the show. Earlier, too, I have had differences with him on professional matters. But I have always regarded him as a man of integrity and found him credible. As a journalist, he is always in search of news. A few weeks ago, he himself became news when he was picked up soon after dropping his wife at a school where she teaches.

After nearly 10 hours of agony he was thrown out of the car he was being driven in by his ‘handlers’ near Fateh Jang. The next morning, he surprised many when he appeared before the Supreme Court to face the contempt of court proceedings over a tweet allegedly with regard to the Justice Qazi Faiz Essa case. He linked his ‘disappearance’ to the case and surprised some people with his statement that he would neither stop journalism nor accept a compromise.

One thing is clear, today even a few of words on social media can land you in deep trouble. You are under watch all the time. Considering how journalists Hayatullah Khan and Saleem Shahzad were treated one should count oneself lucky if one is returned safe. In Khan’s case, his family continued to pay the price for his resolute commitment when his widow appeared before the Judicial Commission and identified the allegedly ‘unknown people’ and was herself killed. In Shahzad’s case it was generally said that he ‘knew too much’.

Whether you are a journalist like Matiullah Jan or a rights activist like Idrees Khattak, you are at the mercy of some ‘unknown’ people who remain unidentified even if they are known to a number of witnesses. The anonymity and the impunity have a long history. No wonder, after 73 years of independence, we are still struggling for a just society based on democratic values.

In a country where laws have been made by both military dictators and civilian rulers to gag the press, ‘dissent’ is deemed unacceptable. Independent opinion thus, becomes the first casualty. Today, media regulators treat even a criticism of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) as an offence. Criticism of the Prime Minister’ Office can be treated as a violation of the infamous Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) rules. I have seen and kept copies of hundreds of such PEMRA ‘notices’.

The opinions expressed by independent columnists or analysts in their newspapers articles are routinely questioned. The more one is critical of the authorities the more problems one faces. In recent times, even the Ministry of Information and regulators like the PEMRA have lost count of unwarranted actions against journalists and media houses.

The following is a brief list of laws used against the media and journalists besides unlawful ways of intimidation such as threats against one’s person and family and actual (force) disappearance:

The Official Secrets Act, 1923, the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997, the Newsprint Control Ordinance, 1971, the Registration of Printing Press and Publications Ordinance, 1997, the Printing Press, Newspaper and News Agencies, Books Registration Ordinance 2002 and Rules, 2009, (which have replaced Press and Publication Ordinance, 1961,) the Electronic Transactions Ordinance, 2002, PEMRA Ordinance, 2002, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Radio Broadcast Station Operations) Regulations, 2012, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016. The most recent law i.e. PECA 2016 is used more blatantly against social media activists by those in power through the FIA. Many have been arrested and have faced trials. Hardly in any case has the FIA been successful in establishing an offence. Sooner or later, the courts declare the action unlawful and lacking substantial evidence.

When it comes to freedom of expression in a broader sense, there are laws to control films and drama. These include the Dramatic Performances Act, 1876, the Motion Pictures Ordinance, 1979, the Censorship of Films Rules, 1980, and the Sindh Motion Pictures Act, 2011. In short, there are too many laws to censor expression.

There is no doubt that there is nothing like a blanket freedom of the press or of expression. It is also true that every country has rules and regulations. The issue is that these laws and regulations are only being used to curb dissent. Terms like ‘national interest’, ‘scandalous’, ‘obscene’, ‘indecent’ have often been used to suppress critical voices.

From print to electronic media to now digital media, the challenges faced by every platform are different. So are the tactics of those who want to keep the media under control.

Information may be a provincial subject after the 18th Amendment but there is still a press registrar, a Grade 20 officer, and other such officers appointed by the federal government who sit in Islamabad for registration of newspapers and distribution or allocation of functions to be performed under an ordinance.

However, due to a continued struggle by journalists and the civil society it appears that there is finally some light at the end of the tunnel. There are now laws like the Newspaper Employees (Conditions of Service) Act, 1973, the Right of Access to Information Act, 2017, the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act, 2013, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Act, 2013, the Balochistan Freedom of Information Act, 2005, the Sindh Transparency and Right to Information Act, 2016. However, the implementation and enforcement of these benevolent laws leaves much to be desired. The legal battles are hard to fight as there is no easy or early relief in our judicial system.

The digital media has been controlled through the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, using the FIA. But even these are legal ways, though clearly misused to gag the press. But what about journalists, rights activists and even political workers who have been simply picked up or have ‘disappeared’? Sometimes they get thrown out of cars after hours of illegal custody; sometimes they get added to the category of ‘missing persons’.

16 journalists have been killed over the last two years (nearly 130 since 9/11). In only five of these cases, have the accused been prosecuted.

With the rise of information technology, the tactics have changed. One can be discredited, disgraced and humiliated using one’s own account which can be hacked, failing which fake accounts can be created to damage one’s reputation.

Many of the 521 notices issued by the PEMRA from 2018 to 2020 (show cause, warning, advice) have been related to criticism of the NAB, as if the accountability bureau is some holy cow. Several TV channels and anchors have received warnings this year from the PEMRA for criticising the NAB. The most amazing were the notices in regards to anchors’ opinions, which PEMRA found ‘biased’.

Pakistani journalists have come a long way in their fight for the freedom of the press. On August 2, they celebrated the 70th anniversary of the foundation of Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ). (The Union was formed at a convention in 1950 at Karachi’s famous Khaliqdina Hall, but not without facing hurdles created by the administration.)

“Democracy would be meaningless without a free press,” said the country’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, in a message on the historic occasion. In his absence, the inauguration was left to Foreign Minister Sir Zafarullah Khan. Both assured journalists that the state would guarantee freedom of the press in the country.

A resolution adopted in the presence of the minister stated, “If Pakistan is to be a modern democratic state, the constitution of the country should guarantee in unequivocal terms the complete freedom of the press.”

It was because of the efforts of the PFUJ that the constitutional guarantee of the freedom of the press was given. But in a country where the constitution cannot be protected, despite provisions like Article 6, how can Article 19 protect or safeguard the freedom of the press?

Soon after independence the civil servants, a majority of whom belonged to the Indian Civil Service (ICS), decided to retain most of the pre-independence laws used by the British to curb dissent. In fact, more laws were introduced not only to gag the press but also to control the printing and publishing of books.

To address the ‘challenges’ posed by digital media, the previous parliament passed the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016. Successive governments have retained the Printing Press, Newspapers and News Agencies, Books Registration Act, in one form or the other. The recent bill passed by the Punjab Assembly in the name of Islam also includes clauses under which any book can be banned if an officer i.e. DGPR considers it against ‘national interest’ or Pakistani culture.

The PEMRA was established in 2002 through an ordinance which was later adopted by the parliament with some amendments in 2007. The ‘press advice’ which remained part of Pakistani print media since independence, when even attempts were made to delete some paragraphs from the speech of the founder of the nation, Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, before the Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947, has now been replaced in the electronic media with PEMRA’s ‘advice’, ‘warning’, ‘show-cause’, and ‘suspension and cancellation of TV licence’.

Since 2002, nearly 3,000 notices have been issued to TV channels and FM radio stations. Interestingly, almost 50 percent of these were issued during the period of the last three democratically elected governments. In the last two years of the present government, the PEMRA has issued 425 show-cause notices, 48 advices and 48 warnings to news and entertainment channels.

From print to electronic media to now digital media, the challenges faced by each platform are different. So are the tactics of those who want to keep the media under control. In the past, anti-press freedom lobbies were quite visible. One could be arrested, put in jail or convicted through a special court. A newspaper could be banned under any of the anti-press laws. But now one also risks a forced disappearance at the hands of ‘unknown people’. TV channels can go ‘off air’ or lose their place on the cable bouquet, not through a PEMRA decree but at the whims of ‘unknown operators’ following a phone call from the right places.

Over the last few years the attempts to muzzle the media and free voices in the country have increased. Thus, the struggle goes on.

The writer is a senior columnist and analyst for Geo, The News and Jang. He can be reached on Twitter at @MazharAbbasGEO

Controlled by the ‘unknown’