IF battering the media into submission for all practical purposes was not enough, the current dispensation has betrayed its fears and anxiety in talking about setting up special ‘tribunals’ to further tighten the noose around the media where there was no slack in the first place.
Through the announcement, the prime minister’s adviser on information, Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan, may have meant to put fear in the hearts of all critics in the media, but in case any such plan is actually realised it would be tantamount to driving a stake through the media’s own heart ie killing it.
It is not as if the laws of the land do not exist, covering defamation and every other crime the media, or some black sheep who happens to be part of it, can possibly commit as should be the case. The media or any other pillar of the state ought not to have carte blanche.
In addition to these laws, enforceable in the courts, the PTI government, and more so its backers, had already brought the media to its knees, particularly the bulk of the ‘free electronic media’. For evidence, one needed only to surf channels.
Switching to any channel you would have seen a near-familiar scene each evening on TV screens, exceptions notwithstanding, with famous anchors, analysts and commentators on a non-stop tirade against opposition parties and leaders and their alleged corruption. Also, they were happily endorsing, in fact eulogising, those transgressing their constitutionally defined role.
What is the government fearing from the media that it feels it must acquire the legal capacity to take cases against it to special tribunals?
It was a different story until Nawaz Sharif’s falling out in 2016 with the establishment over his suggestion that Pakistan was facing international isolation and it would be in the national interest to clamp down on militant groups of different hues that the state had allegedly patronised or used to pursue its goals.
To the untrained ear, the electronic media may still have appeared no more than cacophony. However, to the more discerning viewer or media consumer it was obvious that different channels and their prime-time leading lights were representing different political entities and interest groups.
The breach between Sharif and the security establishment was to open up into a wide gulf, following the change in the top command of the army. It would cost the prime minister his job and eventually his freedom. This came about with powerful state agencies either co-opting willing partners in the media or simply pressurising the defiant ones into coalescing.
The honourable exceptions refused the carrot, defied the stick and were made an example of, brought to the verge of financial ruin. There were also allegations that private-sector advertisers and agencies were told that any support to the conscientious sections of the media would draw the wrath of those who had long operated in the shadows, well away from the reach of the law.
While the media was fine-tuned to play its ‘positive role’, a seemingly over-confident PML-N had displayed short-sightedness and shot itself in the foot by leaving unchanged the draconian laws under which the National Accountability Bureau operates.
Similarly, a self-confident, to the point of being arrogant, prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, had spurned his opposition’s offer of resolving the controversy triggered by the Panama Papers leaks in parliament and dragged the courts into it — who knows if he thought he or his party would be eternally in power when snubbing all attempts by the PPP aimed at amending NAB laws.
Now it is public knowledge that both those decisions cost Sharif dearly. He is out of power and in prison, so is his political heir Maryam Nawaz. Anybody else who can represent even symbolic defiance to those in power including PPP leaders are also in NAB custody.
The video-compromised NAB chairman and his organisation are moving forward in a manner that forced the Supreme Court chief justice to refer to the damaging ‘perception’ being created that the process of accountability is one-sided.
Against this backdrop, what is the government fearing from the media that it feels the need to acquire the legal capacity to take cases against the fourth estate to special tribunals and seek a verdict within 90 days?
I am told the prime minister in particular is very averse to media scrutiny and criticism. Having led the Pakistan cricket team to its only World Cup triumph and then successfully undertaking the noble task of setting up a cancer hospital, perhaps Imran Khan is only accustomed to receiving accolades.
Now that his government seems to be underperforming at best and there is increasing scrutiny of its decisions and the decision-making processes, the prime minister and his media managers which, some insiders say, number a couple of dozen are said to be upset and angry.
Is it this that is triggering knee-jerk reactions such as proposing, with an aim to pushing through parliament, legislation that will facilitate special media tribunals and speedy trials of journalists/organisations that cross the line in the government’s view?
I think that one may need to dig deeper into the matter to see what is really behind such rash decisions which can potentially backfire. For one, some of the key electronic media personalities, who were seen as very sympathetic to the PTI, seem to be changing their mind.
Then there were those who also want to serve the cause of national security as determined by the powers that be. I have no reason to say anything other than that these two categories of media people perhaps followed their pro-security establishment-PTI course out of sheer conviction. Yes, a conviction that the PML-N and its quest for civilian supremacy was bad for the country and whatever was being planned was good for the nation and its security.
If you were part of the PTI set-up and you suddenly saw these uber-nationalist media men and women suddenly changing their tune en masse and start attacking you when your performance is no more abysmal than it has always been, what would you read into it?
If you interpreted this as a significant element of the establishment having second thoughts about Project New Pakistan would it make you nervous? It probably would. The question is whether this is actually the case, isn’t it?
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2019