From blank pages to blackout

Originally posted in: Dawn

Writer: Zahid Hussain

IN the bad old days of Gen Ziaul Haq, newspapers would often carry blank spaces indicating that certain stories had been pulled out by the authorities. The military ruler had enforced pre-censorship whereby news content had to be cleared before being printed. It was at the sole discretion of the press department what could or could not be published. Obviously, there was no concept of an independent TV channel back then.

We seem to have come full circle with the looming shadow of authoritarianism. Slowly but surely, the Ziaist model is coming back. There may not be pre-censorship where the media is concerned as yet, but we are close to it. There are already restrictions on what can or cannot be printed or telecast. The methods of control are different but not the objective.

There may not be blank spaces in newspapers but it is apparent what has not been published. The list of taboos is getting longer. The curbs on the electronic media, however, are more ominous. The muted voices of listed opposition leaders are reminiscent of the blank spaces in newspapers during the 1980s.

Now the latest on the list of ‘baddies’ is JUI-F head Maulana Fazlur Rehman. Clearly, his press conferences and rallies are not supposed to be telecast — no one knows under whose orders and under what rules. Pemra denies giving any such instructions, and yet, the ‘ban’ is fully implemented by all channels. It’s amusing to watch the maulana on screen with his voice muted — ‘read my lips’.

The attempt to control the press and encourage a pliant media is extremely dangerous.

Earlier, Pemra had banned former president Asif Ali Zardari’s interview on the pretext that he is an under-trial prisoner, though he remains a member of the National Assembly. Similarly, TV channels were instructed not to telecast Maryam Nawaz’s pressers, when she was out on bail, because she was convicted. Again no one knows under what law. It’s all done in a creepy manner.

But the maulana is neither convicted nor facing any court trial. So why ban his appearances? His speeches are said to be provocative. Maybe. But what about the threat hurled by the top leadership of the ruling party being telecast directly?

Again the instructions to the media come from ‘unspecified’ authorities. Unlike the Zia period, when the military had publicly set the rules of the game, matters are more arbitrary now. Perhaps it has something to do with the existing hybrid power structure. A deliberate ambiguity is maintained around the executing authority.

It is obvious that the PTI government is getting panicky with the maulana’s call for storming the capital and other main opposition parties extending him support. One may completely disagree with the maulana’s crafty political game and his shenanigans. But this is not the way to deal with the problem. It is still his democratic right to protest.

Imran Khan and his party should be the last ones to attack the maulana on that count. Just a few years ago, the PTI had marched into the capital with thousands of its supporters laying siege to the city for almost four months calling for the resignation of the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif. The sit-in was not peaceful either.

Arguably, more than any other politician, it is Khan who has benefited from a free media, though there is a question mark hanging over the 24/7 coverage of the dharna when he sought to bring down the government through street power. The dharna continued for more than four months but failed to achieve the objective. Perhaps, the maulana is trying to emulate Khan’s irrationality back then. Khan is now being paid back in the same coin.

Ironically, blacking out his speeches has probably given the maulana more publicity than he could have ever imagined. Almost all TV talk shows and the 24/7 news cycle for the past two weeks have revolved around the maulana’s march. Every statement and presser by federal ministers blasting the JUI-F leader has perhaps given him a political boost. It has catapulted him onto the political centre stage.

More disturbing, however, is the shrinking space for a free and independent media that has already reversed the democratic political process. It is not just about the blackout of some opposition political leaders, but the manipulation of the media. The attempt to control the press and encourage a pliant media is extremely dangerous. Recent moves against the independent media demonstrate weakening civilian power. A major question is, who is in charge?

Last week, Pakistani authorities denied entry to Steven Butler, Asia programme coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), citing a blacklist managed by the interior ministry. According to the reports, Butler was sent back from Lahore airport despite the fact that he was travelling on a valid journalist visa.

He had come to Pakistan to participate in the Asma Jahangir Conference-Roadmap for Human Rights. He was told that his name was “on a stop list of the interior ministry”. Even worse, his passport was confiscated and he was forced to take a flight to Doha on the way to Washington.

In a message to the CPJ, Butler said he was in “a kind of restricted custody” as the flight crew was in possession of his passport and boarding pass. The government has failed to provide any explanation for Butler’s expulsion. Nevertheless, Butler addressed the conference via Skype to the embarrassment of the Pakistani government. So much for the country’s image.

What the civil and military leadership fail to understand is that the world has changed since the Zia period. Blank pages are not workable any more. In this age of digital media, there is a limit to what the authorities can do to control media and stop the flow of information. Such draconian measures can only bring embarrassment to those controlling the levers of power. The suppression of the fundamental right of freedom of expression can only weaken the state. Imran Khan should learn from the past — such actions only strengthen non-elected institutions of the state.

The writer is an author and journalist.

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