Pakistan media in a state of crisis

Gulf News, November 22, 2006

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), which represents more than half a million journalists in over 115 countries, has described the state of press freedom in Pakistan as “rapidly skidding towards lawlessness” and entering a state of crisis.

During the last six months, Pakistan has seen four journalists killed and each of the four cases remains unsolved. The younger brothers of two journalists were brutally murdered, as if to teach the older brothers a lesson.

In addition, four journalists were reportedly detained and tortured by intelligence agencies. 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 November 20.

Mohammad Esmail, Maqbool Hussain Sail, Hayatullah Khan and Munir Ahmad Sangi were killed after filing stories the government did not want reported.

Journalists abducted by intelligence officers include Mehruddin Marri of the Sindhi daily Kawish, Saeed Sarbazi of Business Recorder, Geo News reporter Mukesh Rupeta and freelance cameraman Sanjay Kumar.

One of the founders of the Balochi-language TV station Baloch Voice, Munir Mengal, is still missing after disappearing on April 7.

Since assuming power in a military coup in 1999, General Pervez Musharraf’s military regime has presented itself as a benignly authoritarian establishment that allows freedom of the media.

On several occasions, Musharraf has cited his patience of diverse opinions in the media to justify that his administration is more democratic in spirit than previous elected civilian governments. But in reality, the Pakistani authorities’ policies over the last six years can best be described as “selective repression”.

Civilian politicians

There is no doubt that civilian politicians, such as Mian Nawaz Sharif, had a low threshold for personal criticism – a fact I know personally from my detention during his second term.
Sharif, and during the 1970s prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, used blunt instruments of coercion against well known media critics, creating a widely held perception of repression. Pakistan’s generals, beginning with the late General Zia ul Haq, learnt a lesson from the resentment built against the civilian leaders as a result of their high profile actions against media personalities.

The generals’ model of media control is to target poor but well informed reporters not known to the English speaking urban 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 broadmindedness while at the same time keeping dissent under control. Internationally well known media personalities can criticise the regime, while at the same time securing for it high marks for allowing the criticism. But the criticism must be of the drawing room variety, covering 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.

Media freedom since 1999, though considerable, has still been within well defined parameters. The parameters for the English language media have been wider than for the vernacular press.

Multiple TV channels have been opened without giving credit to the elected leaders under whom the concept of private television channel ownership was first mooted. Many more topics have been opened to discussion on radio and TV, and criticising Musharraf has been allowed quite widely.

Key issues

At the same time, key issues have still been kept out of bounds or subject to self-censorship by owners of media outlets. The government wants to arrogate to itself the right of identifying issues over which it might be criticised.

Touchy subjects include discussion of the role of Pakistan’s invisible government, the intelligence services and the corruption or self-aggrandisement 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 vague and general terms.

Opinions critical of the military regime are allowed but facts that back up these opinions must not be revealed. That way, the general and his cronies can keep reassuring their international backers and domestic supporters that all is well and the ranting of critics in the media is only the expression of frustration by opinionated semi-politicians bearing a grudge against Musharraf or his appointees.

Historically, the sensitivity of a regime in Pakistan to dissent and truth-telling is often directly proportional to its feelings of vulnerability. Overt repression is less in days of self-confidence and more in periods of insecurity.

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.