Pakistan media must be free to air opinions

It's no secret that Imran's stellar rise, even if it took 22 years, owed in no small part to Pakistani media.

By Shahab Jafry

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Published: Wed 30 Oct 2019, 8:00 PM

Last updated: Wed 30 Oct 2019, 10:33 PM

Once again, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan's government falls all over itself for no reason really. This time it's got into the news, ironically, because it tried a rather novel way of staying out of it. People are still trying to understand just why Pemra (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) demanded the other day, through an official, binding notice, that television anchors not offer their personal views or appear as experts in their own or other shows or channels.
How did they think it would sit with journalists, social activists and, quite frankly, society at large? Sure enough, there was an uproar, not the least from popular media itself. And even if the government's able ministers had factored that much in, surely they were taken aback by some of the severe criticism that came from some of the most senior members of PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf).
Asad Omar, Imran's blue-eyed boy till he was chucked out of the finance ministry rather unceremoniously, tweeted, "Pemra should be doing a better job taking action against completely fake news and not suppressing the right of individuals, including anchors, to express their opinion."
Shireen Mazari, minister for human rights who's usually found fiercely defending some of the government's more questionable gambits, was forced to ask, "Who is an 'expert'? An interesting [and] unintended debate has been generated - so purely at an academic, non-political level: Do I need a degree in politics to be an expert on politics? I have no degree in 'human rights' so should I go on TV to discuss 'human rights' issues?"
And Fawad Chaudhry, controversial former information minister who was also relieved of his duties, then given the science and technology portfolio, felt Pemra's directive was simply "illogical, unnecessary and uncalled for."
That, as usual, got the information ministry to try and backtrack as quickly as possible, falling back on its favourite defence that Pemra had just been 'misinterpreted'. So, when the Authority said anchors should not express their personal views, and people thought it meant anchors should not express their personal views, they were just misinterpreting the whole thing, or were they?
But that's not the end of the matter. If reports in Wednesday morning's papers are to be trusted, Prime Minister's Special Assistant on Information Firdous Awan - who said Nawaz's platelets dropped because of his eating habits and thought the recent earthquake that killed some people in the northern regions came because even the earth could not digest Imran's accountability drive - didn't like the in-house criticism at all and went complaining to Imran Khan himself.
And the captain dealt with the matter like he's been dealing with most matters since becoming prime minister. He "reprimanded some federal ministers and senior leaders of the ruling PTI for their statements against Pemra's recent move." That, it's now safe to say, means that he didn't mind the "move" nearly as much as the criticism.
Now, let's stop for a little perspective here. It's no secret that Imran's stellar rise, even if it took 22 years, owed in no small part to Pakistani media. Journalists and anchors, like just about everybody else, had pretty much had it with the pervasive corruption and loot that comes hand-in-hand with democracy in the Islamic Republic. And, also like almost everyone else, they liked what they heard from Imran Khan. So they gave him more air time than others, liked his honesty because he took live programmes unlike our other democrats, and promised to solve some of the common man's most basic problems. And, barring a channel or anchor or two, Imran was largely friends with popular media, especially TV.
But things have clearly changed since he won the election. Most journalists and anchors have been calling him out for breaking most of his promises besides, obviously, bitterly criticising his economic policies that quickly led to highest inflation and unemployment, and lowest savings and growth in years. And Imran just doesn't like what he sees now that the shoe is on the other foot.
That explains another recent smart idea that also had to be rolled back rather quickly, and not without the usual embarrassment. Just last month, cabinet announced establishment of special media tribunals in the country, ostensibly to "settle cases of media organisations, workers, owners and citizens" but everybody knew what it was all about. And as soon as the criticism started pouring in, the government backtracked in trademark fashion.
There's more to confirm the trend. Not long ago the government stopped Asif Zardari's interview five minutes after it began because, they said, he was facing a corruption trial. And they didn't allow channels to air Maryam Nawaz's interview (Nawaz Sharif's daughter) because, they said, she's convicted. And now they're not allowing channels to cover Maulana Fazlur Rahman's agitation (who's neither under trial nor convicted) just because they don't like him.
Whether or not journalists should be allowed to have their own opinions or indeed flavour their stories with personal bias is an argument for another column, perhaps next week, but it's pretty clear that Imran Khan is all for freedom of press and all that as long as he's in opposition, but he likes everybody toeing his line when he's calling the shots. It must be his way or the highway.
Old-timers in the industry don't remember things being this bad even in the dark(est) days of General Zia ul Haq.
Shahab Jafry is a senior journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan

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