Monday, June 11, 2018

#Pakistan - No fair election without free media

Pakistanis will elect a new government on July 25. The caretaker administrations at the centre and provinces have taken charge and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) will be performing its legal duties to ensure a fair election. However, a fair election requires free and independent media that can inform the public and help the electorate in making informed choices on the Election Day. But media freedoms have consistently been under attack in recent months. This is a serious cause for concern and needs to be addressed at the earliest.
The country’s largest TV network was browbeaten into adopting a pliant line. The method chosen was even more alarming. Instead of legal proceedings through the electronic media regulator underhand means were employed to restrict the transmission of the channel in various parts of the country. This continued for weeks and ultimately the channel reportedly made a deal with the powerful quarters within the state. Since then the programming of the channel has undergone a noticeable change. The latest victim of such highhanded methods has been DAWN newspaper, which is country’s oldest and much respected newspaper.  The list is long and worrying.
Individual journalists, including citizen journalists such as Gul Bukhari, have been warned and intimidated and none other than the head of military’s public relations wing announced that the social media was under surveillance to check anti-state content. All states exercise some measure of scrutiny to ensure that national security imperatives are not compromised. Yet, journalistic freedoms need to be carefully handled as they relate to a vital citizen right of information and the sustenance of a culture that enables freedom of speech. These rights are under threat in Pakistan as the country enters into the election cycle.
At the centre of this tension between the media and the permanent institutions of the state i.e. the military and the judiciary is the aggressive posture of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his party that have been complaining of strong arm tactics by the establishment. Another fault line is the media coverage of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, its strong rhetoric against the deep state and public mobilisation against some of the instruments of Pakistan’s crackdown on terrorism, a subset of the global war on terror.  The army has concluded that it’s foreign sponsored and a threat to the national security. Resultantly, there has been a blackout and public conversations have shifted to social media.
Sadly, Pakistan’s media remains disunited and unable to forge a common strategy to counter the growing curbs their freedoms. A recent example of the disarray is the statement issued by PFUJ against the press conference of the DG ISPR. PFUJ’s strongly worded statement was retracted a day later thereby showing how even the media bodies are much susceptible to pressure. As regards the electronic media, the media owners are so driven by profit that they have no qualms about forsaking freedoms lest their business is affected by the state controls.
Pakistanis deserve better. Access to information through independent media must be a non-negotiable right. Foreign press has been reporting on this issue and international watchdogs have issued statements asking for protection of journalists. In the globalised information age, it is impossible to implement censorship.  Pakistan’s image suffers each time there is an attempt to muzzle the media. The political parties and the media houses have an important role to play to ensure that citizen rights are not denied. Never was media unity more needed and never was it as fragile as it is today.
All of this casts an ominous shadow over the electoral process and the future direction of democracy in the country. 

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