Strangulating the fourth pillar of state
By Amjad Ali Siyal
The importance of the media can be gauged from the fact that it has been informally considered as the fourth pillar of state. Having been endowed with the responsibility to inform public, it is the dissemination of undiluted truth which complicates the situation for media.
As a consequence, media persons are subjected to repressive tactics by government of the day and this practice is common in almost every corner of the world. Similarly, this country is also not immune from media censorship; harassment of media persons; and causing rifts between media houses into different lobbies for vested interests. Media persons themselves have equally contributed in their strangulation.
Media is at the receiving end of the government’s anathema throughout the world. Uncle Sam is at the forefront in this regard. Donald Trump has a particular apathy to media houses such as CNN, New York Times, etc. which he expresses in conspicuous manner many a times. In November 2018, CNN’s Jim Acosta asked a question from President Trump regarding immigration and Mexico border issue. To which President Trump became so furious at Jim that his microphone was cut off. President Trump said to Jim Acosta “honestly, I think you should let me run the country, you run CNN, and if you did it well, your ratings would be much better.” In addition, his press credentials were revoked by the White House. This behaviour is unbecoming of a president of the sole super power country. Situation in Russia, China and in other parts of the world is equally distressing.
In Pakistan, almost every government since the inception of the country left no stone unturned to control media. However, the dictatorial Zia regime unleashed worst forms of media censorship and also set the tone for successive governments to follow suit. Brief democratic dispensations did not hesitate to tread the path trailblazed by the Zia dictatorship vis-à-vis stifling media freedom. As late columnist Ardeshir Cowasjee reminded my generation that when any editorial was censored by then Information ministry that space used to be left blank for letting the readers know that the publication of that piece has been denied by the regime. After Zia’s air crash, it was hoped that the era of censorship has long-gone away. Contrarily, democratically elected governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were equally fatal to the press freedom. Nawaz Sharif was so furious at Najam Sethi in his second stint as prime minster that he wanted then COAS Musharaf to initiate the case against Sethi in the military court in order to settle score with the journalist. Recently, Pervez Musharaf corroborated that account.
Additionally, the fate of the media is also far from ideal in the present-era. PTI-led government also tried to stringently regulate media which was indeed tantamount to sending a loud and clear message to journalistic community to toe the official line or else face the music. The government’s move to establish Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA) bringing electronic, print and cyber media under its umbrella. Moreover, the idea was floated to establish media tribunals for tackling media related cases by it within 90 days. These are other such measures to tightening the noose around media. Paradoxically, when Imran Khan was out of power, he was ardent proponent of the free press and participated in street talk shows during Musharaf era. Now that he is in the government saddle is bent on imposing media censorship with the tools of regulation, tribunals, etc.
Admittedly, the media persons themselves are also somewhat responsible for such media curbs. They remain divided into different camps. Some of them are dancing at the government’s tune and their backers while others to their opponents disregarding the journalistic responsibilities. Resultantly, the situation has always been exploited by the vested interests.
There is a need for the media persons to realise their responsibility of disseminating unbiased information to the public. Not all but few media persons or houses’ credibility and reporting is certainly questionable as we have seen media persons issuing verdicts against politicians as corrupt; news was break that late actor Abid Ali was dead albeit he was alive by then; unnecessary coverage to sensational events such as Malik Muhammad Sikander episode in Islamabad; levelling unsubstantiated allegations against any citizens, meaningless breaking news’, etc. As one of my teachers once said that due to the increased number of news channels, if a person falls down while riding a bicycle it becomes a breaking news. Hence, it behooves media to act more responsibly and restore its credibility. It will help them to collectively resist against the arbitrary decisions of the government of the day. Public will be at the forefront as they were during the judiciary restoration movement. It was also the unfettered collective media and public power that helped reverse the coup attempt in Turkey back in 2016. The combination can do the wonders for strong democracy, accountable system and the prosperity of society.
It is high time for the government to let the media flourish as it is an indispensable part and parcel of democratic system. It is media which creates awareness amongst the masses regarding the fruits of democracy and fosters a culture of accountability as witnessed during the last general election. The masses questioned the candidates regarding their performance when they were part of legislatures. That was widely broadcast by media encouraging people to hold to account to those electoral candidates. On the other, it is vital that the media ensures that the information which is consumed by public is undiluted and worth investing time to watch such programmes. For this purpose, inclusive committee may be considered comprising of media persons, PEMRA officials and parliamentarians for reviewing complaints pertaining to any complaint whether against the regulator, government or the media houses having powers to recommend appropriate actions to the concerned authorities which shall be binding in nature. Last but not least, strangulating media may benefit individuals but will cause irreparable damage to the democratic system. It is time to let the media flourish as a source of information and voice of the downtrodden sections of society.
The writer is a development sector practitioner with a keen interest in SDGs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org