Pakistani Peoples Party activists protest against the arrest of Asif Ali Zardari, former president and co-chairman of the PPP, in Quetta on June 12, 2019. Photo: AFP / Banaras Khan

The famous English novelist George Orwell once said, “Freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose.” Freedom of the press is considered  vital for strengthening democracy and pointing out the flaws in the system.

However, in Pakistan, the journey for the press has always been a difficult one. From the era of General Ayub Khan to General Pervez Musharraf and then the transitional face of democracy, when first the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPPP and then the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) ruled, there have been invisible curbs on the freedom of press. We saw how journalists who did not buy self-created “patriotic” ideologies were termed traitors and accused of taking bribes from external hands.

However, since Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) assumed power, curbs on freedom of press and expression have been imposed on a large scale. Recently 21 news channels were issued notices by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) and three were taken off air without being given the opportunity to plead their case.

An interview of the former president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, was taken off the air after three minutes. There has been a complete ban on showing the narrative or viewpoints of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM). Even Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s speech at a workers’ convention in Sukkur, Sindh, on Wednesday was not aired live by many television channels amid a backlash by the government and powers that be.

It appears that only positive things about the incumbent government are allowed to be aired or published in the newspapers, and criticism is taken as an attack on PTI

It appears that only positive things about the incumbent government are allowed to be aired or published in the newspapers, and criticism is taken as an attack on PTI. It is strange that a party that came to power on the back of the media is now trying to curb the freedom of the press. PTI during the five-year tenure of PML-N was the blue-eyed party for some media groups. It was given unprecedented coverage during that time, and it has to be accepted that a few media groups actually maligned journalism by becoming allies of PTI.

In any case, PTI leaders’ speeches were never censored nor were television channels taken off the air, and circulation of newspapers was never interrupted during the tenures of the PPP and PML-N. There were a few cases of TV channels being taken off air or newspaper circulations being disturbed, but those measures were taken by the powers that be and neither the PPP nor PML-N governments anything to do with that.

But now, PTI is openly saying that it will not allow any leader of the opposition to go on television who has been convicted or is facing trial. This seems to be a threat to crush dissent, as if this logic is accepted, the question arises why Bilawal’s speech was not aired, as he is not facing any trial in the court. And how, by this logic, can business magnate Jahangir Tareen, who has been disqualified by the highest court of the country on charges of corruption, hold press conferences and appear in the media on a regular basis?

Tareen was declared corrupt and dishonest but because PTI is in the good books of the establishment, he was not sent to prison. However, on the same charges, Nawaz Sharif was put behind the bars. Imran Khan himself is facing an inquiry, and a case involving his party regarding a foreign funding case is also pending in the Election Commission of Pakistan, so this should mean that even the prime minister cannot appear in the media.

Then there are serious questions being raised on cases made against members of the opposition, and the recently released video of Accountability Judge Arshad Malik by the PML-N has raised serious questions about the judicial system of Pakistan.

On the other hand if the PEMRA code of conduct restricts the broadcast of sub judice matters, then how is it that PTI leaders have been allowed to comment on Zardari’s and Sharif’s cases pending in the courts, and they around the clock use these cases against Sharif and Zardari to strengthen their party’s narrative? PEMRA never stops the hate-mongers, pro-establishment or pro-PTI TV anchors and politicians, nor does it take notice of PTI politicians terming opponents traitors on television.

Pakistan’s political history shows that most of the legal cases lodged against politicians are politically motivated, and unfortunately neither the National Accountability Bureau nor the judiciary has a good name as far as history is concerned. The four periods of martial law imposed in the country were validated by the courts, as was the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. In the Musharraf era, the NAB was used against his political opponents to crush dissent, and don’t forget that Nawaz Sharif was even charged in the hijacking of a plane and was disqualified for life at that time. However, he returned and all his sentences were suspended.

Then there remains another question: How on earth was Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan given air time on television? And how come General Musharraf was allowed to appear on TV when he was declared an absconder?

Nowhere in the world can a democratic government usurp the right of a person under trial to interact with the media. Neither Asif Zardari nor Bilawal Bhutto has been convicted of any crime. As for Maryam Nawaz, her sentence was suspended by the Islamabad High Court, yet the TV channels have been asked by the authorities not to air interviews or press conferences of her.

If this precedence of curbing the freedom of expression and dissent is set, then it will eventually haunt PTI itself, as times change very quickly in the power corridors.

On the other hand, the media should be held accountable if they are spreading false news or propaganda, but it can never be dictated what to show or write and what not to publish or telecast. If journalists cannot feel secure about breaking stories or publishing dissenting views, and they are pressured through their organizations to mute their Twitter accounts, then this can be termed as a dictatorial step and an effort to curb the media.

Journalism is not a public relations business, and neither the government nor any other authority can expect the media to play the role of image building of certain regimes or institutions. Yes, the government and other power players can give their versions of narratives, but no one has the right to usurp dissenting narratives and voices.

A regime that does not tolerate dissent and that does not allow freedom of the press and of expression can never be termed a democratic regime. It is in fact a dictatorship under the disguise of a democracy.

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