Historically whenever truth encounters power, coercive measures are adopted to suppress it. Power cannot face the truth because the truth shakes the foundations on which power is based. It takes away the moral authority of power to determine what is right and what is wrong because often, the truth of power is based on what is wrong, rather than what is right; on fear rather than love.
In a world that is increasingly embracing the right to free speech, Pakistan is sprinting fast towards a past where objective criticism is met with intimidation, suppression, and even violence in some cases.
Truth is the first casualty in a restricted narrative the state is desperately trying to build. PEMRA, the media regulatory authority, is acting as a mouthpiece for hidden powers with vested interests.
Nothing happened overnight. Limitations on free speech and objective reporting have always been in place. Balochistan was always considered a topic to avoid, self-censorship was mostly the norm. Missing persons were missing in our reporting. So were the relationships of the establishment with non-state actors. It was obvious to everyone that corruption within the military was not to be discussed. Peace with India was a no-go zone until very recently.
When the media subtly accepted these guidelines, the establishment realised how easy it was to suppress any narrative which did not conform to theirs. Critical journalists lost jobs. Government advertisements to media houses became dependent on how kindly their TV channels and newspapers portrayed the government. Political talk shows were frequently suspended to put pressure on the hosts who dared to objectively state facts. Even satire and humorous portrayals were banned by PEMRA, showing us that Naya Pakistan has little sense of humour.
After this was successfully achieved, the guns were pointed towards opposition politicians who refused to accept this new reality. Channels were advised not to cover the rallies and speeches of politicians critical of the government. Again, compliance was achieved.
With all these successes in the arsenal of the establishment, they found it wise to stop an interview of a former president after less than five minutes on air, although terrorists have been allowed to talk freely on mainstream media.
The buck didn’t stop here. Video proofs showing eccentricities and admissions of guilt of favoured players were not allowed to be played on TV. When NAB chairman behaved inappropriately with the wife of an accused, it was casually ignored since the man in question was an important player in the new order. It didn’t matter whether he had extremely loose moral standards as long as he did what he was told. Moral flexibility seems to be an asset rather than a liability in these troubling times.
The video in which the accountability judge who convicted Nawaz Sharif confesses to acting under pressure regardless of the absence of proof is also not allowed to be played on television. However, federal ministers who push the fascist narrative of Naya Pakistan can talk about mass murder and torture and they not only get away with it but also get a pat on the back.
There is a lot of irony in the fact that it was independent media which propelled Imran Khan’s popularity before his new friends took him seriously. With Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto in exile, Khan was the only anti-establishment politician who spoke against the very excesses he is committing today. The media favoured Khan because he seemed to believe that an independent press was essential for any democracy. I think power reveals more than it corrupts.
Strangling press freedom might seem like an efficient short term solution to counter the incompetence and mismanagement of this government but I recall DG ISPR’s statement in which he claimed that Pakistan would never have been divided had an independent press existed at that time.
Is it reasonable to hope that the general and his institution will act on this claim? It pays to be optimistic but I still have my fingers crossed.