Big Brother’s Heel

Big Brother’s Heel

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by Najam Sethi
Media rights have come full circle. Three decades of relative freedom are over. We are well and truly shackled. Consider.

For four decades after independence, from 1947-1987, the media was, in Zamir Niazi’s immortal word, “in chains”. During the decades of dictatorship under Generals Ayub Khan and Zia ul Haq or under Z A Bhutto’s autocracy, Pakistanis were compelled to tune into BBC Radio to know what was happening in their country.

But after the fall of General Zia in 1987, democratic elections were ordered and a caretaker government amended the Print and Publications Ordinance of 1962 and freed the print media. Benazir Bhutto didn’t warm to criticism in her first regime from 1988-1990 but learnt to live and let live, as she put it, “in the din of democracy”. Nawaz Sharif was inclined to be less tolerant from 1990-1993 but generally didn’t kick the media about. While Ms Bhutto remained true to democratic form in her second term from 1993-1996, Mr Sharif’s “heavy mandate” in 1997 went to his head and he started to get tough with dissenting voices in the media. Both were wary of allowing the print media to venture into the electronic age.

Then General Pervez Musharraf became a darling of the media in the early 2000s when he opened the floodgates of TV licensing and lapped up media compliments for being a hybrid democrat who had got rid of a budding “Amir ul Momineen”. A hundred TV channels bloomed. The media promoted the good general’s government and all was hunky-dory, until he made the fatal mistake of rounding on a maverick judge and lit a prairie fire. The media that he had freed now turned on him and turfed him out.

Asif Zardari’s regime (2008-13) was very tolerant even though the media was very sharp. So was Nawaz Sharif’s (2013-2018) even though he lost his job, thanks to Panamagate scooped by the media.

But one important development in the media was already becoming evident in the last decade – corporatization. Increasingly, big business was seizing control of print and electronic organs and beginning to downgrade journalistic ethics, standards and independence at the altar of vested corporate economic and political interests. One unfortunate consequence of this development was the ease afforded to the Miltablishment to make inroads into the media and influence its editorial policies on the pretext of the patriotic “national interest”. Democratically elected popular civilian governments were now subjected to Miltablishment pressure and criticism via the popular media when they ran afoul of it. This began during the Zardari tenure and acquired sinister proportions during the last Sharif regime.

The Miltablishment has changed over the years. Its rank and file are more intrusive, more aggressive, more self-righteous than ever before. This is part of the “nationalistic” anti-liberal status quo wave sweeping across the Millennial globe. One consequence is that the ISPR has started to loom larger than life. After General Musharraf’s exit, its DG was upgraded from the rank of a serving Brigadier to a Major-General. Its HQ was rebuilt and modernized. It was flushed with funds. Its scope and mission statement was enlarged. The DG’s press statements, conferences and tweets were now splashed across the front end of the news cycle. Millennial reporters and TV anchors tripped over themselves to showcase their “patriotic” credentials and consolidate their jobs with business bosses. The elected leaders in government were subjected to a barrage of hostile media fire. Their inefficiency and corruption – notions rooted in the training and ethos of the Miltablishment – became the buzzwords of the new media to besiege the democratic process.

Everyone knows that the elevation of Imran Khan and Millennial-backed PTI is owed in great measure to the tactical and strategic policies of the new Millennial Miltablishment. Now we are reaping the fruits of this unholy political alliance.

PEMRA was supposed to be an independent media watchdog. Now it has become a potent anti-media weapon in the hands of the Miltablishment-Government. The cable operators in the private sector were expected to be business-neutral. Now they are only an unknown phone call away from blocking channels. Social media thought it could function freely in the rarefied space of the Worldwide Web. But Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are routinely petitioned by the PTI government to take down hostile voices. Sometimes social media critics are “disappeared” to teach everyone a lesson. Now plain clothed agents have taken to visiting journalists and advising them to behave, or else. More ominously, prominent journalists are being accused of being “unpatriotic” and cases of “treasonable” behavior are being lodged in police stations across the country. Media owners are sacking “troublesome” journalists and anchors, even going so far as to ban some of them from tweeting opinion from their personal social media platforms. Journalists’ protests are routinely blacked out by their own organs.

The judiciary is not affording any relief. Even the mighty BBC has been sent packing.

Pakistan’s “democracy” is now firmly situated in George Orwellistan. We are under the heel of Big Brother.

(This is an Editorial from Friday Times Pakistan on 19th July 2019)

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