Room for pluralist narratives

December 27, 2020

The policies Benazir Bhutto introduced and the way she behaved as a prominent leader freed up spaces for pluralism and participation

As a first time prime minister, Benazir Bhutto inherited a media that was used to equating criticism with rebellion. When she first assumed power in 1988 the media was used to being coercively censored under Gen Ziaul Haq. It had mainly defended conservative religious and socio-cultural positions and narratives. For several years, it had not criticised the government. The practice reversed virtually overnight.

With Benazir, came political freedoms she represented in both promise and practice of free speech. For media this was a chance to exercise the freedom of expression promised in Article 19 but denied under Zia. And they did, even if they were disproportionately arduous in aiming at the wrongs of the Benazir government - real or imagined. Some were piloted by a Nawaz Sharif still in thrall back then to Ziaism. He used against her the tricks of fake news and dirty propaganda ironically being used currently against him and his family.

Unlike in developed democracies where there is basically no “government media policy” – media is simply free to be professional or irresponsible – media policies in Pakistan are necessarily a mirror of the personalities of the heads of government. Under dictators, these tend to be harsh towards sections of media not owned by the state. Under elected governments, they are not necessarily less stringent.

Dictators are another breed altogether enjoying more powers than they have to be accountable for, but representative governments have to at least follow rules. Benazir was a people’s person and used media to stay aggressively engaged with them when prime minister. She was the most accessible of Pakistan’s frontline elected leaders of the last few decades, making herself available at press conferences virtually every week. She was also among the most regular in attending the parliamentary sessions both as leader of the house and leader of the opposition. She frequently used her parliamentary presence as media events to lead conversations in both avatars.

Nawaz has always been ambivalent. He could both charm the media (paying an estimated Rs 24 billion in public sector advertising to media in 2017-18) and turn hostile (by, for example, almost shuttering and crippling Jang group and by passing the cybercrime law in 2016 that was thinly disguised at criminalising dissent online and is haunting him now). He avoided media engagements and was the second least attendant of Pakistani prime ministers in parliament and so forwent parliamentary proceedings from a media lens. He shunned press conferences.

As prime minister, Imran Khan is not ambivalent at all – he is unambiguously intolerant of dissent and is the person who avoids direct media contact like the plague. He holds the record for being the least attendant prime minister in parliament precisely because he doesn’t want a two-way exchange with either his peers or the media. His media policy is restricted to tweeting personally and unleashing an army of foul-mouthed spokespersons aimed at deflecting criticism towards opposition instead of allowing government to be held to account.

All this puts Benazir in contrast. While she was a media’s dream child – in power and out – in her battle for restoration and practice of democracy for the long decades she was in politics, Pakistani media, both state-owned and independent, often vilified her. Which is why when she was in power, in both her short tenures, she tried hard to allow greater freedom of expression, even through the state-owned media, because this was essential to her kind of democracy – plural, inclusive and progressive.

But that’s the price of democracy. The greater the degree of its functionality, the more the media will hold power to account – in Pakistan’s case often going beyond its remit by being manipulated by the sections of state resisting and disparaging democracy as both governments of Benazir, three of Nawaz Sharif and one of Asif Zardari found out to their dismay. On the contrary, civilian dictators (aided by their non-representative backers) have coercive media policies that enforce a minimalisation of governmental accountability and instead overt and often crass denigration of the opposition.

It has to be remembered, though, that back in both tenures of the Benazir governments (1988-90 and 1993-96), the official media infrastructure was different than it is now in both scope and influence. There were no independent news TV channels which only came in 2002 under Gen Musharraf’s fiat. The media establishment comprised basically Pakistan Television (PTV), Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) and Associated Press of Pakistan (APP). The PTV and the PBC constituted virtually the entire broadcast journalism landscape while independent print media remained the only bastion of independent journalism, which APP tried to influence with little impact then as now when it has become largely redundant.

Essentially state-owned TV held sway in broadcast journalism and the government could still ‘manage’ the popular electronic media narratives to their interests. But print media gave Benazir a tough time – so much so that when her first government was dismissed, the Supreme Court upheld the dismissal partially on the grounds of “corruption stories” in newspapers, citing these as “evidence on record”.

Her government’s official voices included cultured, inclusive and hardcore democrats but soft-spoken parliamentarians as information ministers like Qamar Zaman Kaira and Sherry Rehman, and the finest official spokesperson this side of Zia’s martial law – Farhatullah Babar, who was an effectively represented both Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and President Asif Zardari to media. Nawaz Sharif chose the likes of Sheikh Rasheed as the face of his media policies while Imran Khan let loose Fawad Chaudhry, Firdous Awan and Shibli Faraz on the media. This tells you a great deal about the quality of political communication these governments chose.

Ultimately, Benazir’s media legacy is one of jettisoning hypocrisy from official communications and upholding principles of free speech and using it as a lens of public dialogue around Pakistan’s political, cultural, linguistic and ethnic pluralisms. No wonder cultural and civil liberties, which are an intrinsic part of her media policies, flourished compared to regimes on either side of her tenures.

Even though Benazir’s media policies helped seize back considerable space for civil liberties and expression of political and civil rights crushed under Zia and allowed for resurgence of participatory democracy, they ultimately cost her dearly both times she was premier as they allowed her to be tainted with corruption charges – which still haven’t been proved in courts of law. A case of more sinned against than sinning.

This is in contrast with media policies of Imran’s authoritarian government, which revolve around crushing dissent to deflect criticism and accountability – and getting away with hypocrisy that is now better known as u-turn. Imran’s media legacy is thereby the ashes of Benazir’s media legacy. Therein lies Pakistan’s modern political tragedy.

The author is a political analyst and media development specialist. He can be reached at

Room for pluralist narratives