Media in the Line of Fire

Indian Express, November 24, 2006

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has described the state of press freedom in Pakistan as “rapidly skidding towards lawlessness”. During the last six months, Pakistan has seen four journalists killed.

The latest victim of what Amnesty International calls “enforced disappearances” is Dilawar Khan Wazir, a BBC Urdu service reporter in Pakistan’s tribal region of South Waziristan. He has not been heard of since leaving Islamabad for home on the morning of Monday, November 20. Mohammad Ismail, Maqbool Hussain Sail, Hayatullah Khan and Munir Ahmed Sangi were killed after filing stories the government did not want reported.

Since assuming power in a military coup in 1999, General Pervez Musharraf’s military regime has presented itself as a benignly authoritarian establishment. Musharraf has cited his patience of diverse opinions in the media to argue that his administration is more democratic in spirit than previous elected civilian governments. But the Pakistani authorities’ policies over the last six years can best be described as “selective repression”.

Civilian politicians, such as Nawaz Sharif, had a low threshold for personal criticism — a fact I know personally from my detention during his second term. Sharif, and earlier Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, used blunt instruments of coercion against well known media critics.

Pakistan’s generals learnt a lesson from the resentment built against the civilian leaders. The generals’ model of media control is to target poor but well informed reporters not known to the English speaking gentry.

If the worst truth about regime policies does not come out from where the action actually takes place —Waziristan, Larkana, remote parts of Balochistan — then the state machinery can continue to harp on its broad mindedness while keeping dissent under control.

Internationally well known media personalities can criticise the regime, securing for it high marks for allowing the criticism. But the criticism must cover issues that do not cause the masses to question the military’s authority.

The model of media control under the Musharraf regime has been to make examples of field reporters that would then scare others and make them toe the line. The parameters for the English language media have been wider than for the vernacular press. Many more topics have been opened to discussion on radio and TV. Criticising Musharraf is allowed widely.

Yet key issues have been kept out of bounds. Touchy subjects include the role of Pakistan’s invisible government, the intelligence services, and the corruption of senior military regime figures. Human rights and sovereignty violations in the war against terrorism are kept under wraps. The dirty war against fellow Pakistanis in Balochistan cannot be reported except in general terms. Opinions critical of the military regime are allowed but not facts that back up these opinions.

The current rise in murder and abduction of journalists speaks volumes about the anxiety of Pakistan’s current rulers over their ability to continue to indefinitely control the unfortunate people of Pakistan.