Pakistan has long failed to act convincingly against the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and its front organisation Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), even after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. For the military establishment, the terrorist group is an asset to wage proxy war against India, while the civilian leaders who are aware of the dangers the groups pose to Pakistani society have resisted calls for action owing to the local support the groups enjoy. This has been a major sticking point in India-Pakistan ties, with New Delhi insisting that Islamabad should at least be able to contain Hafiz Saeed’s hate speech even if the Pakistani State is unable to take on the LeT more directly.
The Nawaz Sharif government has finally acted in this regard. It has issued an order through its media regulator, directing television and radio broadcasters not to cover the activities of 72 outlawed groups including the JuD. Advertisements calling for donations to these groups will also be banned.
In a first, the order refers to the JuD as an alias of the LeT, which Islamabad has refrained from doing even though the JuD has been designated as a terrorist organisation by the UN. Sceptics will scoff at the step, seeing a link between this move and the recent discussions with Washington about a possible nuclear deal. Of course, Pakistan is known for its transactional diplomacy, but this ban on media coverage can over time have a salutary effect on the country’s public sphere.
A blanket ban on news of a particular kind is problematic in democracies, but this one will have its uses since those like Saeed spew hatred in rallies and talk shows to get the reach they want. Saeed has sought to rouse anti-Indian sentiment through irresponsible rhetoric on water issues and he continues to call for jihad to liberate Kashmir.
A media landscape suddenly rid of extremist talk is a promising investment in its future, but it remains to be seen how the ban works in practice. The JuD, for instance, does do charity work alongside its malevolent plotting — in fact it has been active in the relief work in northern Pakistan following last week’s earthquake. Failing to entirely report on certain developments will undermine the legitimacy of broadcasters and have the effect of directing audiences to partisan platforms online.
Broadcasters will need to get right the balance of capturing social dynamics and keeping hate speeches out. Pakistan’s counter-extremism project has a long way to go owing to the quality of its textbooks and the number of radicalised youth. The JuD alone runs numerous schools and seminaries focusing on the next generation. The new media policy is a useful step nonetheless.