Bidding Adieu To Press Freedom

Dr. Hasan Zafar argues that the reason press freedom is declining across the world is that the veneer of political correctness that has defined the unipolar global landscape is quickly fading, driven by a chaotic rivalry for power and economic control.

Bidding Adieu To Press Freedom

Michel Foucault, the 20th-century French philosopher, once said that absolute freedom of speech was never available at any given time. 

The post-Cold War era witnessed the emergence of notions such as equality, human rights, and free speech, alongside other principles. These ideals found resonance within the purportedly free societies of the West, with their democratic ethos and free-market economies. However, recent developments in Europe and West Asia have cast a new light on these principles, revealing their true nature. This reality has become palpable amidst the shifting political landscapes of these regions. 

Over the past three decades, certain phrases have been deployed to suppress unfavourable news and opinions, including terms like hate speech, incitement to violence, and antisemitism, among others. Should one wish to exclude certain narratives from the media, these phrases serve as effective tools.

In media language, this is called ‘framing.’

Following the Russian attack on Ukraine in 2022, the Russian news channel RT became unavailable worldwide. Their websites do not function, at least not in Pakistan, as far as we in Pakistan know. The world media has framed Russia as an aggressor, invading a sovereign country, Ukraine. We scarcely hear of what prompted Russian action – the violation of the post-USSR agreement that NATO will stay away from the countries bordering Russia. We mostly hear about the Ukrainian troops repulsing Russian forces, and Putin losing political ground in his own country, and the Russian economy crumbling down – both these claims may be contradictory to the realities on the ground. But we don’t know. We only know what the media allows us to see, to hear, to read. 

‘Press freedom around the world is being threatened by the very people who should be its guarantors – political authorities.’

The other side of the story is shunned out, largely.

After the Israeli attack on Gaza, discussing the humanitarian crisis among the Palestinian populations has become increasingly difficult. Western media, for the most part, refrained from publishing or broadcasting pro-Palestinian opinions, often framing Hamas as the aggressor, a terror group and Israel as the victim, citing the events of October 7, 2023. Reporters Without Borders (RSB) observes that ‘Occupied and under constant Israeli bombardment, Palestine is ranked 157th out of 180 countries and territories surveyed in the overall 2024 World Press Freedom Index, but it is ranked among the last 10 with regard to security for journalists.’ But you cannot talk about it freely. If you upload any content supporting Palestine on social media, it is likely to be blocked, taken down, with possibly a warning sent out to the creator of the content.

That is how free and tolerant the West is – framing at its best!

In the world’s largest democracy, opposition parties have dubbed the Indian television channels as ‘Godi Media’, or ‘media in Modi’s lap.’ Criticism of Narendra Modi is scarcely tolerated on Indian screens. A Germany-based Indian YouTuber, Dhruv Rathee, remarked on Karan Thapar’s show on YouTube, The Wire, that as a critic of the Modi government, his program is under constant threat of being blocked in India. And of course, Indian business giants like the Ambanis and others are supporters of Modi’s BJP, and these business tycoons also own and fund Indian media. Without their money, media cannot survive.

So, media must obey and oblige.

In Pakistan too, following the infamous regime change of the PTI government in April 2022 and subsequent events, notably the events of May 9, 2023, the media – both television and social networking sites like X – have come under scrutiny and been shut down. It is still fresh in everyone’s memory that the internet became unavailable nationwide in Pakistan on the night of the general elections between 8 and 9 February, and again during the by-polls conducted on 21 April 2023. 

More recently, Pakistan’s Army Chief, the one who calls the shots, warned against the harms of unbridled dissemination of news on social and digital media, saying that ‘social media is being used to create an environment of chaos, despair, and panic. Through fake news, an impression is being created that the state is losing its [writ].’

The years 2023-24 have witnessed a notable decline in the World Freedom of Press Index.

The Pakistan Freedom of Expression and Media Annual Report 2024 paints a bleak picture of media freedom in the country. The Freedom Network observes, ‘Reduced tolerance for online dissent, shutting down mobile networks on election day, throttling of internet access, forced suspension of social media platforms, and a raft of attacks and harassment of journalists and bloggers, including the murder of four journalists, significantly eroded the parameters of general free speech and dissent in Pakistan over the past 12 months while enhancing the risks for media freedoms.’

All media, be it television, print, or digital, mostly functions with money provided by sponsors – businessmen, industrialists, and governments. (To understand this better, read Noam Chomsky’s Media Control). Of all these key players, it is the responsibility of the government to guarantee a free press. According to RSB, ‘press freedom around the world is being threatened by the very people who should be its guarantors – political authorities.’

The years 2023-24 have witnessed a notable decline in the World Freedom of Press Index. Interestingly, the RSB data shows that both democratic and non-democratic nations in Eastern Europe, Eastern Africa, and most of Asia stand at nearly the same level of press freedom index – take a look at this map.

These are indisputable facts. What is debatable here are the reasons as to why this is the case.

The media was never entirely free in any country—East or West. However, the West maintained an aura of freedom, of liberty, as a matter of political correctness. This became increasingly fashionable after the demise of the USSR and the falling of the Berlin Wall, denoting the end of the Cold War. The notion of political correctness served the US-led unipolar world very well. It became commonplace to frame any nation that did not fit the veneer of Western political correctness with phrases like suppressing women, targeting the marginalized, undermining minorities, promoting racism, lacking democratic values, promoting terrorism, and so on. 

However, as the tides changed and other power players emerged on the horizon, namely China and Russia, which together form a duo of economic and military power and have in unison challenged the US's status as the sole superpower, the need for political correctness has receded into a back alley. Signs of this may be seen in the internal politics of democratic countries like India and the US itself, where once-unspeakable topics have attained center stage in political discourse – such as the lashing out at immigrants by President Trump and the targeting of Muslims in public speeches by Modi in India.

As the veneer of political correctness fades away further, the world might see a further erosion of free speech and freedom of the press. Fasten your seatbelts and brace for a bumpy ride!

The author holds a PhD from the University of Glasgow, UK. He hosts a political talk show on TV and appears as a political commentator in TV shows.