A Pakistani fruit vendor reads a newspaper as he waits for customers on a street in Islamabad. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi
A Pakistani fruit vendor reads a newspaper as he waits for customers on a street in Islamabad in 2017. The federal capital has been identified as a danger zone for journalists. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

While the rest of the world is busy dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government is busy muzzling the media and criticizing its political opponents.

On Thursday the Pakistani government arrested Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, the editor-in-chief of the Jang media group, the largest in the country. Rahman was arrested by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) for allegedly buying property illegally from Nawaz Sharif in 1986 when Sharif was serving as chief minister of Punjab province.

Rahman’s arrest did not come as a surprise, as Prime Minister Imran Khan is known to use the NAB to silence his critics and political opponents. Since the days of the sit-in he organized against the government then headed by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Imran Khan has been critical of the Jang Group, as contrary to most of the other media houses, it did not support him blindly but presented other perspectives as well.

Khan often said in his speeches that if he came into government he would have Rahman arrested. Geo News, Geo TV Network and the print editions The News and Daily Jang were all tagged as traitors by Khan, and his followers of course blindly believed him.

Ever since Khan has assumed the post of prime minister, press freedom in Pakistan has been in decline, while the NAB anti-graft body has been used to settle scores with dissenting journalists, media houses and political opponents.

It was clear from Day 1 that Khan wanted to introduce an autocratic model of governance like those of Saudi Arabia and China where the government controls the media and information. However, arresting Rahman at a time when the focus of the government should have been to devise a strategy to deal with the coronavirus outbreak is evidence that Khan and his cabinet are only interested in curbing the media and suppressing dissent.

The media houses are already facing a financial crunch due to the government cutting back its advertising during the economic slump, and working journalists are bearing the brunt, as they are not receiving their salaries on time – many have not been paid for months. Worse, many journalists who refused to compromise on the integrity of the profession and refused to become part of the propaganda machine of the government and the military establishment are jobless.

Despite the fact that the majority of the TV news channels and publications are still siding with the government propaganda, even the dissenting voices of two or three media houses are not tolerated by Imran Khan. But the question arises whether Khan is capable of carrying on this crackdown against the media on his own, and the answer is a clear no. To be sure, Imran Khan is no democrat and has a dictatorial mindset, but cracking down on the press and arresting the editor-in-chief of the Jang Group could have not been possible if the invisible forces had not given the nod.

Since 2018 when Khan assumed power, Pakistan has been under indirect martial law, and the establishment has been successful in shrinking the space for dissent and freedom of the press by using him as a puppet. He is more concerned about his critics and the media exposing his administration’s weakness on the governance and foreign-policy fronts and thinks that those journalists not praising him and accepting him as a saint are either traitors or taking bribes from his political opponents.

Since Khan himself is an insecure man, he knows that the manufactured opinion shaped through a large section of the media by the invisible forces not only played a pivotal role in undermining former prime minister Nawaz Sharif but also brought himself to power. However, what Khan is not capable of understanding is that without the backing of the invisible forces, the few media houses that are actually exposing the failures of this rigged political discourse and its backers cannot dethrone him unless the main opposition parties decide to side with the invisible forces, and those forces decide to throw him out of power.

Perhaps this is the disadvantage of not coming to power on a genuine mandate, as Khan deep inside knows that he is incapable of fulfilling his unrealistic electoral promises. So in frustration, he is targeting the press without realizing that throughout history there has always been a section of press that refused to surrender even in the worst periods of martial law under Generals Ayub Khan and Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.

The Jang Group in the 1990s faced the wrath of the PML-N when then-prime minister Sharif was unhappy with the Daily Jang and The News and started a crackdown against the media group. So for the Jang Group and dissenting journalists, the current arrests and financial curbs are not new, as from Ayub Khan’s Press and Publication Ordinance (PPO) in 1962 to Zia’s worst Islamization of the press, journalists have seen this all before.

While it is true that Imran Khan lacks political acumen and has no taste for reading and research, his backers should realize that first by terming the Dawn newspaper a foreign mouthpiece and traitor and then accusing the Jang Group and its Geo TV as treacherous and arresting its owner, he is only further damaging the already weakened credibility of the country.

So the question is, what actually has been achieved by crackdowns against press freedom and promoting those newspapers and TV channels that remain submissive to the narratives of the state? “Obedient” and “positive” reporting, analysis and commentary have only nurtured narcissism and delusions in Pakistani society and hastened the demise of journalism and literature in the whole country.

Not even a single “positive” and “obedient” journalist or media house is considered credible outside the country, while inside the country the controlled section of the press has only created a mindset that prefers to live in a state of delusion and illusions.

One does not need to be a genius to figure out that independent journalists and a free press are the faces the country presents to the outside world, and they are the ones who despite being the targets of malicious campaigns by the deep state and elected governments have still been able to break the inertia encircling the journalism and literature.

Intellectual drought is the death of a society, and by promoting a controlled press and literature the PTI government along with its backers is rapidly moving on a self-destructive path. The manufactured opinion and rotten narratives imposed through a controlled section of the press will only create minds full of bigotry and prejudice, as it is the only a free press that guarantees smooth sailing for a civilized society by pinpointing its flaws and giving it the opportunity to rectify its errors.

From criticizing the media groups to the attack on the Dawn News office in Islamabad last year to denying job opportunities to dissenting journalists, and from not allowing Steven Butler, the Asia coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), to enter the country to the arrest of Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, Imran Khan has not only damaged the image of Pakistan in the global community of journalists but also has proved that he is a dictator in the guise of a democrat.

However, just as dictators like Ayub and Zia were not able to muzzle the press, neither will Khan, as the problem with dictatorial regimes is that they thrive on fascism. As US-based author and sociologist DaShanne Stokes rightly said, “Fascism thrives in obscurity and darkness.” But darkness, no matter how long it persists, always has to surrender eventually to the rays of the new dawn. Perhaps this dark night too will pass soon and a free press and genuine democracy will prevail in Pakistan, where there is no dearth of fearless and objective journalists and genuine political parties who despite being suppressed never quit trying and keep the hope alive that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. 

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.