Recently, there have been two ugly reminders of the current federal government’s amateur, ill-advised and heavy-handed attempts to control public discussion on vital issues.
One of these is the Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry attacking Dawn, which was founded by the very man who founded this country, the Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and – regardless of one’s views on its work or editorial line – still remains Pakistan’s paper of record.
The other is the appearance on social media of a mysterious official document that claims to provide a list of experts for commentary on Afghanistan. This list was, according to the document being circulated, shared by the National Security Division (NSD).
Let us briefly examine each instance of meddling by those currently in power.
Minister Fawad Chaudhry is now more than ever responsible for coordinating with and facilitating the work of the Pakistani media. For him to succumb to the PTI’s unfortunate and longstanding agenda of de-legitimising the mainstream media is particularly tragic and alarming. This agenda of the ruling party is all the more reprehensible because it serves purely short-term, partisan interests. More specifically, it is a vendetta against those organizations and individuals in the media who – from time to time – take a serious and critical assessment of the PTI. It does not behoove a federal information minister to take up this unfortunate cause, since there is already a massive, assertive and rabidly partisan pro-PTI presence in mainstream and social media to achieve such goals.
Moreover, the Minister’s words were quite bizarre. He suggested that the Dawn newspaper was part of an “international laissez-faire conspiracy against Pakistan.” How is one to begin processing this claim?
The first thing to note here is how suspect the document is: cropped from the top and circulating without proper context. These matters cannot be allowed to fester on social media, open to everyone’s interpretation, with no real input from the authorities
Nobody knows what he meant by “laissez-faire,” which, until now, used to mean a set of non-interventionist economic policies by a government (the kind of policy which the ruling party’s leading intellects, including Chaudhry, see as the only way to manage an economy, beholden as they are to the neoliberal economic orthodoxy promoted by Washington D.C.). What else could “laissez-faire conspiracy” mean? That the world simply wants Pakistan’s authorities to lay their hands off Pakistan’s media, and this is a terrible thing?
The minister does offer us some clues as to what he might be trying (unsuccessfully) to convey. He says that there are elements in the Pakistani media who want to bring international regulations to bear against Pakistan’s rulers, by making the rulers crack down on journalism. A simple solution to this problem could be that the government stop hounding a media which is already quite willing to cooperate with it on issues where the country’s core interests are involved! The burden of defending a ruling party when it makes foolish moves is best left to zealots and hirelings – it should not be imposed on the professional sections of the media.
Let us move to the other case from this week: i.e. the list of “acceptable experts” on Afghanistan that is being shared on social media. In the past, the ruling party has circulated similar lists of journalists who it considers proper journalists, etc.
The first thing to note here is how suspect the document is: cropped from the top and circulating without proper context. These matters cannot be allowed to fester on social media, open to everyone’s interpretation, with no real input from the authorities being cited in this document.
A relevant authority from the government – perhaps even information minister Fawad Chaudhry, if he finds the time from clashing with mainstream media outlets – should have addressed it briefly. In that case, he might have briefed us all on the following aspects:
1) What is the authenticity of this document?
2) If authentic, which government branch actually issued it? The document claims that this list of experts was “shared by the NSD” but we don’t have any indication of who saw fit to release it to the world, and why.
3) What is the need for having approved lists of commentators, especially when the people on the list are going to immediately disavow any participation in such a project? Such disavowals are only to be expected, as they would immediately harm the credibility of the prominent figures named. And so, to nobody’s surprise, Mosharraf Zaidi, Rabia Akhtar, Fahd Hussain and Ejaz Haider have been quick to distance themselves from the affair.
4) What does it tell us about Pakistan’s public discussion on Afghanistan (or any other issue) if the rulers have to issue approved lists of commentators?
While we await clarity on all of these issues, we can only express regret that a government should feel so persecuted by a media which it has relentlessly hounded – for no justifiable reason except the desire to silence all other perspectives.