Pakistan High Resolution Social Media Concept Image: iStock
Harsh laws against abuse of social media could themselves be abused by government aiming to crush dissent. Image: iStock

“Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.”

This quote from George Orwell fits into the current scenario of Pakistani media. The media are under strict censorship that is silencing or blacking out any opinion that challenges the prevailing orthodoxy. It is as if there is a silent agreement between the mainstream media and the invisible forces to censor everything that challenges the status quo.

Protests against the alleged rigging of the recent elections are not shown; speeches by Pashtun and Baloch leaders are practically banned.

In the city of Mansehra, there have been reports of people shot dead during protests against rigging of the elections but not a single media outlet dared to report about it. The same is the case with the mainstream news websites, which are practicing self-censorship. Other than the Urdu news website HumSub, almost every other website is refusing to publish any piece on the involvement of the military establishment in staging an undeclared coup through engineered elections.

It is not only about politics. The mainstream media do not discuss social issues or the marginalization of the country’s minorities, as they have been taught that highlighting these issues is equivalent to defaming the country.

There is a vast breed of journalists who are happy to be dictated to by the establishment. This breed successfully maligns politicians and democracy and spreads self-created theories of international conspiracies to damage Pakistan. One wonders why, if international powers are busy all the time trying to destroy Pakistan, they continue to bail it out through institutions like the International Monetary Fund.

There is a vast breed of journalists who are happy to be dictated to by the establishment. This breed successfully maligns politicians and democracy and spreads self-created theories of international conspiracies to damage Pakistan

The media owners are certainly running the TV channels and publications for the sake of profit, but now journalists are also busy getting financial and other gains through aligning with the powerful elite. The business of manufacturing consent and opinion through Joseph Goebbels’ philosophy that repeating a lie again and again successfully delivers the desired results.

A whole generation of Pakistanis has grown up listening to propaganda, and as a result, the faith merchants, the military establishment and the judiciary are considered sacred cows. The right to differ is being usurped and dissenting from established ideologies is considered a crime. The debate culture is over, and it is accusations and allegations that are the order of the day. The more you malign opponents in the TV talk shows or in newspaper columns, the more ratings you enjoy.

It is all about ratings and approval now. Objective journalism vanished long ago: Facts are twisted, conspiracy theories are created, the anti-establishment and anti-faith-merchant voices are either completely silenced or given very little space.

The spineless media of Pakistan are trying to portray what has been ordered by the establishment. Many journalists have felt forced to turn to online publications to express their way of perceiving ideologies, but these publications are also being brought under strict watch by the invisible forces.

It is a pick-and-choose kind of strategy now – you have the freedom to criticize political ideologies and leaders but you do not have the freedom to question the invisible rule of the establishment. You cannot challenge the self-created religious and social doctrines, nor can you write or speak freely on these in the mainstream or online media.

This is the reason that for many Pakistanis the mainstream media, in particular, have lost their credibility, and they are turning toward online and social media for news and opinions. The growing tendency of the masses to rely on international online publications and social media has been keenly watched by the invisible forces, and local publications are under immense pressure not to publish any material that is not in line with the establishment. So it leaves no space for local dissenting journalists and intellectuals to speak or write freely, and that is the reason most of them are writing for international publications.

Yet it is not easy even for those who write for foreign publications, as there is always a chance that any one of them could go missing at some stage.

Media freedom could have been won by resisting the curbs, but unfortunately, the war for rating points and profit has led to the demise of the freedom of expression. Journalism was always under the influence of right-wing intellectuals and reporters and it eventually produced a majority of self-obsessed and sensation-seeking journalists.

On the other hand, Pakistani political forces too in their time in power never tried to guarantee freedom of expression and never stood up against the undeclared curbs on the media. So now that a “hail the king and long live the king” approach is being followed, it is a pick-and-choose kind of situation in both the mainstream and online media.

The profession of journalism needs the courage to speak the truth. If journalists and intellectuals cannot resist or they are not brave enough to fight for the freedom of expression, they should instead be called public relations officers.

Unfortunately, journalism has become a tool for gaining money, and it has opened the door for the invisible forces to exploit the weaknesses of journalists and the owners of the media groups.

Objective journalism in Pakistan died in the era of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, or whatever was left after that has been successfully managed by the establishment.

By picking and choosing which types of freedom they embrace, Pakistani media have surely denied themselves the freedom of expression, and this has resulted in the demise of journalism and intellectualism in the country.

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.

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