One way or another, there has always been a sense of control which comes from certain establishments since the Independence of 1947. Riding the waves of one military coup to the next one, with short bouts of elected leaders in between, Pakistan never truly became a nation where democracy was the word that defined it.
This charade of puppetry becomes further apparent when one peruses the history of the media in this nation. The first set of media regulation was imposed by President Ayub Khan in 1962 when he presented the Press and Publication Ordinance (referred to as PPO henceforth). The PPO gave the authorities permission to confiscate newspapers, close down news providers, and arrest journalists. The following military leader, Zia-ul-Haq, followed the same path and further amended the PPO, making it impossible for the publishers to post news that was not approved by the administration even if it was factually correct. National interests are damned!
While it is true that the television was first brought forth in Pakistan during the so-called “Golden era” of General Ayub Khan, it should also be mentioned that the first semi-government channel (People’s TV Network) was introduced in the 1990s, and completely private channels were established later on; for, over almost 30 years, there was only one TV channel which controlled the narrative that was presented to the masses.
The same trend can be followed in the radio as well as print journalism. Until 1994, the only radio network that existed was Radio Pakistan; again, that means that the government was controlling the narrative presented to the people of Pakistan for almost 30 years in this sector too.
It can be argued that in Musharraf’s time, there was an increase in the liberty of media, but from 1994 to 1997, the total number of daily, monthly, and other publications increased from 3,242 to 4,455, but had dropped to just 945 by 2003 with the highest impact in the province of Punjab. After the low point in 2003, the number of publications grew to 1279 in 2004, to 1997 in 2005, 1467 in 2006, 1820 in 2007, and 1199 in 2008. Is it only a coincidence that the number of publications only grew after the year Musharraf had won the referendum that allowed him to continue on as the President of Pakistan until 2007?
PEMRA is the “independent” regulatory authority that has been given the power over the news agencies, regardless of which media platform is being used – however, note that the government-owned PTV does not come under its supervision, so either way the narrative is going to be controlled by the government. Why should that matter if PEMRA is truly independent? PEMRA and most of the other media laws only came into being in 2002 before the PML-Q government came into power. Regardless of the backing, this government had from the army, the undemocratic nature of these laws would not have sat well with the Constituent Assembly.
Was Media Freedom Ever Truly Present in Pakistan?: The alleged independence that PEMRA had all but faded away by 2007 when Aaj TV was threatened to be shut down for discussing the judicial crisis on air. During the nation-wide protests for the reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in 2009, they had shut down Geo TV and Aaj TV’s transmission across the country.
In 2009 conditions for reporters covering the conflict in the FATA and parts of the now-KPK were arduous, as correspondents were detained, threatened, expelled, or otherwise prevented from working, either by the Taliban and local tribal groups or by the army and intelligence services.
After gaining control of the Swat Valley, Islamic militants banned cable television broadcasting. During two major military attacks during the year – against Taliban-affiliated militants in the Swat Valley in April and the South Waziristan tribal area in October – reporters faced bans on access, the pressure to report favourably on these advances, and dozens of local journalists were forced to leave the area.
Was Media Freedom Ever Truly Present in Pakistan?: Not only publications as a whole were censored, but certain journalists have been targeted too, causing self-censorship to prevail. Examples of famous journalists that were attacked in the recent past include, but are not limited to, Hamid Mir and Umar Cheema. During this week itself, there have been reports of Senior Journalist Asma Shirazi being threatened in her home.
The selective censorship that occurs in Pakistan does not colour it positively in the international media. According to a report by Al-Jazeera, investigative reporters in Pakistan claim that they have been called by people in the intelligence agency, who demanded that opinion editorials that suggested that Prime Minister Khan was elected with the support of the military be removed. There is also the case of the recent interview that Hamid Mir conducted with the former President of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, which was taken off air within the first few minutes of the show (earning negative publicity globally) – isn’t it questionable that this was removed on the excuse that President Zardari is in the middle of a corruption case, whereas known terrorist Ehsanullah Ehsan’s interview was allowed to be publicly aired? It is no wonder that in 2016, American research firm Freedom House ranked Pakistan among the worst 10 countries for Internet freedom.
Was Media Freedom Ever Truly Present in Pakistan?: Human Rights’ Minister Shireen Mazari has not spoken up about the recent incidents which are making people question themselves and censor their words out of fear. Where is the freedom of speech that all Pakistanis deserve? Where is our right to information? If it all has to go through certain kind of censorship to paint one institution in the best colours and put rose-tinted glasses on the public’s eyes, then why even bother with this facade of having a private media? The masses deserve the truth, and it is time that the government attempts to prove that they are not “selected” by improving the conditions for media.