An elastic notion of press freedom

  • Aakar Patel
  • Updated: May 13, 2014 01:50 IST

Pakistan Cricket Board chairman Najam Sethi once made an observation which was striking. India’s media, he said, acted less free than Pakistan’s. Not in the sense that there was pressure from government, he clarified, but despite there not being such pressure.

He felt there was a sense of consensus and falling in line with the government’s official view that happened here, which didn’t in Pakistan. This was particularly so in matters related to Kashmir and Pakistan.

Is this true? And if so why? It’s important to look at it because Sethi (a former chief minister of Punjab) is most famous for his role as editor of The Friday Times, once spoken of years ago as South Asia’s best weekly.

My links with Pakistan’s media are old and I’m probably the longest-serving Indian columnist in that country’s newspapers. I’ve written columns for many of their publications, including Sethi’s. I write this piece as a participant in Pakistani media rather than someone merely comparing it to India’s. On the whole, particularly before the rise of Narendra Modi, I have found that opinion pages in Pakistan were more robust and more serious than those in India. We tend to be too often inclined to the tabloid end of journalism, concerned with entertainment, and perhaps that has to do with being a secure democracy.

However, there are certain specific problems about operating there that are unique to Pakistan. Let’s look at these.

The first is legal, and it is a law on the ideology of Pakistan. The law, 123-A in the Pakistani Penal Code, awards 10 years in jail to whoever influences a person against the ideology of Pakistan.

Like many other things in Pakistan, the word ideology is left undefined, but it is taken to mean a rejection of the creation of Pakistan and, also, its establishment as an Islamic state. This is why there is no questioning of Partition in Pakistan’s Press, because it is illegal to do this. There is also only muted criticism of its laws, which discriminate against religious and heretic minorities, because this is also apparently illegal (apparently because it is unclear since nobody challenges these laws).

The second issue is one that occurs more frequently in Pakistan’s Press than in any other nation I know of, and that is ‘national interest’. My own understanding of this national interest is that it means a defiance of India and an irredentist spirit on Kashmir. It is defined by the ‘establishment’ (about which more later), and there is no resistance to this ‘national interest’ in the Urdu Press, in fact there is a buy-in of it, though there is plenty in the English media.

As in India, there are things that the writer can get away with in English that he or she cannot in the local language. This is because the audience in English is smaller, more tolerant and because the vocabulary of English is more flexible in accommodating dissent without provoking emotion.

The third issue is the presence of the ‘establishment’ and ‘sensitive agencies’. These are words used even on Urdu TV and stand in for the army and for the spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence. Long years of military rule have conflated all authority with the army and even in times of democracy, the ‘establishment’ is a reference to the gentlemen with the guns rather than those with the seats.

Recently, Pakistan’s most famous journalist, Hamid Mir, who interviewed Osama bin Laden before 9/11, was shot in his car and his driver killed. Mir, a critic of the ISI’s policy of abducting troublemakers in Balochistan and killing them, blamed the ISI for the attack. This created trouble but not of the sort you might expect.

He brought down the fury of other media groups, who claimed his accusation was anti-national because it strengthened India’s claims that the ISI was always up to mischief.

Mir himself seemed to have softened, and now blames “the ISI within the ISI”, rather than the body itself. The fact is that it is difficult for the media to resist the idea that the ISI means well and that whatever it does is in the national interest.

The fourth problem in the media is that of the groups who began as defenders of the national ideology but have now begun to determine it. The Islamist militant groups raised by the army on sectarian lines have become so powerful and their prejudices have become so widespread that they have become mainstream. Only weeks before the shooting of Mir, a series of attacks on the Express media group killed some of its employees and wounded, much in the way that Mir was wounded, one of its faces, Raza Rumi, in a gun attack.

This did not merit as much reporting in the rest of the Pakistani Press, and one reason is that the owners are Ismaili Khojas, a pacifist Gujarati community that are excellent at business but seen by many as heretics.

I have myself learned over the years that certain subjects, like the apostatised Qadiani community, are taboo and must not be touched upon directly.

Those who do this must do so at their own risk. In a profile of his by a western writer, I was alarmed to see that the columnist Khaled Ahmed, one of my heroes, actually paid one of the groups to keep them off his back.

Such then is the lot of the writer of opinion in Pakistan. We may not have the same problems in India (at least not yet), but I think Sethi is quite right in saying that India’s Press often takes the nationalist position on Kashmir and other things.

This remains something for us to discuss openly.

Aakar Patel is a former Gujarati newspaper editor and a columnist for Mint

The views expressed by the author are personal

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