Open Society

Open Society
Time was when Imran Khan stood atop a container-truck for months and constantly lauded the media and journalists for supporting struggles for a better and fairer Pakistan. Alas. The times, they are a changin’. In Imran Khan’s Naya Pakistan, the same media is in the dog house and those very journalists are out of jobs for pursuing the same cause as vigourously as before.

Mr Khan says that the media in general and some journalists in particular are destabilizing his government. He has advised his ministers and supporters to stop watching TV and reacting to stories of corruption, incompetence, mismanagement, double standards, conflicts of interest, U-turns, ham handedness and infighting in the bowels of PTI governments in Islamabad, Lahore and Peshawar. Under his watch, PEMRA is geared to threaten, browbeat and gag the mainstream media like never before, no matter that it is supposed to be an “independent” regulator. Apparently, it was kosher for the free media to destabilise a fairly elected PMLN government in 2013-18 but not when an unfairly “selected” PTI government is at the receiving end.

PEMRA’s latest transgression into media freedoms is a proposed law to control budding online web content by various stratagems. Except in a few authoritarian regimes, such content is regulated under the normal laws of the land in a constitutional democracy. Indeed, since much of it is restricted to persons and not institutions, it is a breath of fresh air away from the restrictive practices and politics of corporate media. But the motive here is mala fide. Its aim is to plug the small gap that has appeared in the overwhelming gagging mechanism of the executive. Journalists who were sacked by media houses for stepping on the toes of the government or Miltablishment took refuge in YouTube and Podcasts. Henceforth, if the proposed new law is passed, they will be pushed offline or prosecuted for non-compliance with strict “codes of conduct” in the context of 5GW or fifth generation warfare. The excuse is that the “enemy” out there has to be stopped from using or exploiting the media to undermine the state’s conventional war capacity. In other words, the media has to be “managed” through censorship of news and analysis.

In practical terms, this has translated into a ban on institutions, parties, movements and persons who are inimical to the partisan political interests of the ruling junta regardless of the fact that they may simply be demanding their constitutional rights. Under this rubric, it is kosher to show every minute of Imran Khan’s aggressive dharna for four months but not more than six seconds of Maulana Fazal ur Rahman’s peaceful march for fresh elections. It is par for the course for the media to highlight every waking propaganda of Imran Khan and his coterie of ministers but not to show case Mariam Nawaz Sharif’s rousing rallies or hard truths defending the trumped up NAB charges against her. Certainly, it is forbidden for the media to air the anguish of the near and dear ones of “missing” or “disappeared” persons and it is downright traitorous to highlight or defend the peaceful Pashtun Tahafuz Movement and its elected leaders. Matters pertaining to the army chief’s “extension” are strictly “no-go” areas. Any criticism of “friendly” states and monarchs is to be shut down. The latest “enemies” are students agitating for local administrative or political constitutional rights, a development that should warm the cockles of archenemy Narendra Modi’s Hindu heart. Indeed, the atmosphere of “prohibition” has become so stifling that an Urdu translation of celebrated author Mohammad Hanif’s bestselling book for many years – “A case of Exploding Mangoes” – is banned, a book on the “Battle for Pakistan” by Shuja Nawaz – a scholar and scion of the distinguished military family of ex-COAS, General Asif Nawaz Janjua, – that discusses the politics of the last decade cannot be launched and a book authored by former DG ISI Gen Asad Durrani whose patriotism cannot be doubted is unavailable in the country.

The media’s trials are accentuated by the shocks of a failing economy and loss of business confidence. With consumer demand and economic growth falling and consequent advertisement revenue plumbing new depths, media houses are laying off thousands of employees and journalists, compelling the more enterprising among these to scramble for alternative avenues of livelihood on the World Wide Web where Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and other such social media outlets provide lucrative avenues for creative energies. In time to come, this activity can rival sources of national income like exports and home remittances from overseas working Pakistanis. But if it is stifled on the pretext of “national security” or “anti-state” activity, then Pakistan will be excluded from the beneficial dimensions of globalization.

Pakistan is neither like the UK, EU or USA where no such regulators and regulations exist nor a closed one like China or Saudi Arabia. But with 200 million people jostling for rights under representative political parties, pluralist groups and a vocal judiciary, there is no path for salvation but one that follows the route of open societies.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.