A muzzled media

May 2, 2021

Since malicious intent is difficult to prove in a fair trial, the bill will mostly be used to persecute dissenting voices in the short term

The media has been muzzled in Pakistan in recent years through various draconian measures and financial pressures. In the Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, Pakistan was ranked 142 out of 180 countries in 2019. Our rank fell to 145 in 2020, which speaks volumes of state control on the press. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) has been issuing notices to TV channels with increasing frequency. Recently, the TV channels were stopped from covering Tehreek-i-Labbaik (TLP) protests. TV channels are also not allowed to air addresses or interviews of former premier Nawaz Sharif or MQM chief Altaf Hussain.

An exclusive interview of former president Asif Ali Zardari with Hamid Mir was taken off the air a few minutes into its transmission on July 1, 2019. It was interrupted by an unscheduled ad break and a news bulletin. Hamid Mir took to twitter later to record his disapproval: “I can only say sorry to my viewers that an interview was started and stopped on Geo News. I will share the details soon but it’s easy to understand who stopped it. We are not living in a free country.” A chunk of the interview that later circulated on social media showed the former president stating that an investigation into a scandal involving Prime Minister Imran Khan was under way. Mir asked in a tweet whether the former president was a bigger criminal than Ehsan Ullah Ehsan, the spokesperson for the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, who gave an interview in official custody.

During the same month in 2019, PML-N’s Maryam Nawaz showed a video clip of Judge Arshad, in which he was seen admitting that he was blackmailed into giving a verdict against former premier Nawaz Sharif. The three TV channels that aired that press conference live were later sent notices by the PEMRA. Maryam Nawaz later addressed a rally in Mandi Bahauddin and the three channels that covered that rally were taken off the air and it took days of negotiations for them to be restored. They were asked not to give airtime to those facing a trial or to convicts. Media professionals say the PEMRA is playing a very active but directionless role.

Today, unfortunately, media practitioners, including reporters, anchors and editors are being intimidated, threatened, censored and punished. The PTI government is finding new ways to silence the media. No democracy can thrive without a free press but in Pakistan, the PTI government is bringing new legislation to the National Assembly to further curb press freedom in Pakistan. One such bill, which was recently approved by a National Assembly panel, is against “deliberate disrespect” for the Armed Forces.

Advocate Ali Ibrahim says that the proposed amendment seeks to criminalise intentional disrespect, ridicule and defamation of the Armed Forces. Since it has been added to the general corpus of penal laws in the country, it applies equally to all, including TV channels. He believes that in response to this bill, TV channels will review content regarding the armed forces using third parties as an indemnifying tactic. This will obviously cause bottlenecks in the free flow of information. A working paper of the Ministry of Interior, which was presented to the National Assembly Standing Committee on Interior, states the purpose behind the bill:

“Incidents of defaming the Armed Forces have increased in the country and some disruptive elements, for furtherance of their political objectives, engage in this undesirable practice, which is very defamatory and demoralising for the Armed Forces of Pakistan. The Minister of Interior endorses the proposed legislation keeping in view the current situation in the country.”

Ibrahim says that though it is debatable whether the bill contravenes Article 19 of the constitution which, at least in theory, protects freedom of speech, the fact that the powers that be felt the need to further protect the Armed Forces from criticism, to the exclusion of other law enforcement agencies, is itself quite telling. Unlike the law on defamation, the proposed bill doesn’t even factor in the veracity of the information. Since malicious intent is difficult to prove in a fair trial, the bill will mostly be used to persecute dissenting voices in the short term.

Former senator Farhat Ullah Babar says that such laws have been grossly misused to initiate criminal investigations and to threaten ordinary people and journalists with arrests for speaking up about harassment. Instead of making the law more stringent, there is a strong case to amend the Penal Code and the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) in light of Article 19-A of the Constitution, guaranteeing freedom of expression.

Journalist Ahmad Waleed says that the TV media is already under tremendous pressure from state functionaries and everything being aired is monitored very closely. “The new bill creates more problems for the news channels and takes self-censorship to another level. Already, most of the programmes are pre-recorded to avoid disrespect of the government and its institutions. We will have to set new guidelines for the guests who appear in various programmes to avoid violating the new laws.”

Journalist Raza Rumi says the proposed law is draconian to say the least. Most of the criticism of the army as an institution takes place on social media and that seems to be the main target of this law. Dawn News talk show host Adil Shahzeb believes that the bill will add to the criticism that freedom of expression and the press is deteriorating in Pakistan. Many journalists say that they have not seen such censorship in the history of Pakistan, even during martial law eras. This bill will be the last nail in the coffin, some say.

Waleed says that newsroom staff, reporters, producers and guests will be at risk if anything that could be perceived as disrespectful goes on the air. Rules and ethics will have to be revised accordingly. “All the news channels will be enhancing the broadcast delay in their live transmissions to avoid mistakes and disrespectful content going on the air. All the reporters will have to be instructed to be extra careful, when they go live, while taking sound bites [from the public]. There will be no live television in Pakistan.”

Raza Rumi says that on television, the Armed Forces are glorified and there is virtually no debate on the subject. He recalls that whatever critique there was between 2008 and 2014 ended with the attack on Hamid Mir, when Geo reported the accusations made by Hamid Mir’s family against the ISI director general at the time. Geo was taken off the air.

In the past five years, there has been a purge of the TV industry. Several anchors and analysts critical of the military, especially with respect to its role in domestic politics, were either fired or taken off air. This included Nusrat Javeed, Murtaza Solangi and Talat Hussain.

Therefore, Rumi says, this bill will not impact the news media. But it will have consequences for social media users who frequently raise questions that the news media do not. “More specifically the supporters of PML-N, who regurgitate the words and worldview of Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam, have been very critical. If this turns into law then they will need to be more careful. The cases of Gul Bukhari, Advocate Shafiq and Sarmad Sultan, among others, illustrate this point,” he says.

Adil Shahzeb is of the opinion that there are no set ethical rules in place for newsrooms. Newsrooms already operate in a self-censorship mode, facing all sorts of pressures from the channel’s owners, political parties, the establishment and the religious right. If the bill is imposed, newsrooms will most likely observe a blanket ban on any criticism out of fear. Broadcast journalist Alina Shigri says it will make newsrooms more careful. She believes that the term ‘disrespect’ is vague enough to be a catch-all.

Federal Minister for Information Fawad Hussain Chaudhry has also voiced his concern. He tweeted: “Absolutely ridiculous idea to criminalise criticism, respect is earned, cannot be imposed on people, I strongly feel that instead of making such laws contempt of court laws should be repealed.” Journalist Mazhar Abbas tweeted: “You are free to criticise democracy, you are free to criticise the pParliament, you are free to criticise politicians, you are free to criticise media, [the] rest is national interest.”

Waleed, too, says that respect is earned: “You cannot force people to respect an institution that is directly interfering in civil matters. The best way to be respected is to do one’s job [well] and not interfere in politics.” He says the more the Armed Forces are involved in civilian matters, the more they will invite criticism from the public and the media. In the era of digital media, nobody can control the flow of information.

Shahzeb agrees that respect has to be earned. Disrespect, wrong accusations and allegations against anyone should be punished. He believes that the best way forward is to come up with strong slander laws and ensure their enforcement. Shigri says, “I don’t see anyone disrespecting the Armed Forces on TV. TV channels already have the PEMRA to enforce a code of conduct, so I doubt if this bill will actually be for TV channels.”

Advocate Ibrahim, says that the biggest safeguard against disrespect of Armed Forces by political actors is public opinion. In most countries, it is considered political suicide to ridicule national defence forces. However, in most countries, the armed forces aren’t major players in the political landscape. “It is not as if our Armed Forces cannot set the record straight on reporting concerning them,” he says. “The ISPR has always presented the stance of the military vociferously. The answer to speech should be speech, not criminalising critical voices. As such, this bill will do little to fulfil its intended purpose.”

Babar says that the parliament is not only criticised but has also been ridiculed at times. Yet it has never asked for such criticism to be outlawed. “There is no reason to further amend the Penal Code to bar anyone from expressing concerns about some of the actions of senior members of the Armed Forces. Questioning such action should be encouraged instead of punished. We know how the so-called ‘national security’ has been misused to stifle debate,” he says.

He says the army is expanding its business empire by tilting the playing field in its favour, which will attract criticism. “How can one not criticise repeated military interventions, abrogation of the constitution and the dismissal of elected governments? How can one be stopped from demanding that the ISI be brought under the law? How can the treatment meted out to the police chief in Karachi recently by an intelligence agency not be criticised?” Babar asks. He says that the proposed addition of Section 500-A to the Penal Code could be misused in the name of national security, like Section 295-C has been misused in the name of religion.

Public narratives lose their value under censorship, when disinformation rules. Mazhar Abbas says that censorship damages public narrative in many ways. “Another factor behind censorship was to spread disinformation and, in the absence of a free press, disinformation became information and people started believing rumours and propaganda as facts,” he says.

The writer is a journalist based in Lahore. He reports on politics, economy and militancy and can be reached at [email protected] He tweets @hassannaqvi5

A muzzled media