As tensions raised by the clash between Pervez Musharraf and Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry play out, the media in Pakistan have come under intense pressure. The recent attempt to amend Pakistan’s draconian Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) Act of 2002 would have undermined their freedom to report and host popular talk shows and news programmes even further. The general has backed off for now in the face of public outrage, but everything suggests that this is a temporary retreat.
Musharraf’s rule has been characterised by a generally liberal attitude towards the media. It has been quite common to see quite extensive criticism of the general and his rule in the past five or six years. However, there is always a measure of self-censorship in the Pakistani media that has ensured that things have never reached breaking point.
Watchdog groups like Reporters Sans Frontiers, however, have stated that there has been a steady erosion of the position of the media in the past several years. While criticism of the President has been permitted, there have been kidnappings of journalists and physical assaults on them by persons believed to be security personnel. In the tribal areas, journalists have been barred from reporting independently and those media personnel who live there have been threatened.
But the Chief Justice’s defiance has changed things a great deal. In April, Aaj TV, a popular private TV station, was told that it would have to cease broadcasting for “inciting violence”. This was accompanied by a raid in the offices of GeoTV in which the office of the channel was trashed by the police. Musharraf personally apologised for the raid later and claimed that it was an attempt to malign him. On May 12, when there were widespread riots in Karachi triggered by an effort to prevent Chaudhry from addressing a rally there, gunmen besieged the offices of Aaj TV and fired directly on its premises. More than a dozen vehicles in the parking lot were torched. In this riot, some 40 people were killed and 150 injured.
But the assault on the media is actually older. Many people have missed the fact that from late 2006, Pakistan’s most sober English daily, Dawn, has been under assault. The whole issue, according to Hameed Haroon, Dawn’s publisher, came to a head when the paper reported on leaked ceasefire agreements reached with pro-Taliban militants along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. According to Haroon, senior officers from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting visited the newspaper offices and TV channels to black out the news that came as a shock to not just Pakistan, but also the US and western countries where Musharraf was being touted as a frontline fighter against terrorism. They were told that they would not get government advertising that constitutes 30-50 per cent of newspaper revenues in Pakistan.
Papers like Dawn do get a lot of private sector advertising. But they still get, according to Haroon, some 15 per cent from government sources. Most newspapers faced with this threat, as well as that of newsprint supplies being cut off and journalists being harassed, quietly toed the line.
Dawn stuck it out and since December 2006, government advertising has been slowly stopped and permission for a TV channel by the company was initially rejected, even after it had already hired some 350 people. Later Musharraf came to Karachi to inaugurate the station. But within a week, the Pemra amendments were notified.
The US and western countries need to realise that Musharraf’s actions are threatening not terrorists and the Taliban but Pakistan’s civil society. Newspapers and TV channels have courageously fought against corruption in government and attacked high-handedness, also exposing Pakistan’s official connections with militants and militancy. Now with the Musharraf government seeking to undermine them, the consequences could be much more profound.
These are not matters that should be taken lightly as the net gainers from the destruction of the Pakistani media will be the extremists. Many western countries, including the US, feel that despite his failings Musharraf is the best option for Pakistan. But minus a civil society, what kind of a Pakistan will they be saving?
PN Khera is Editor, Asian Defence News International