One can observe that in the 21st century and more so in the preceding months, journalism in Pakistan has not only become more professional but has also innovated new ways to resist control. An antagonistic relationship between the state and media is the hallmark of any progressive liberal democracy. Pakistan, which has seen rare and brief spells of democracy, has witnessed a continuous attack on journalists, media outlets and the press.
However, what warrants attention is the dilemma of self-censorship within the industry. Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan states that “there shall be freedom of the press”. On the other hand, ever since the colonial era, vindictive attacks have plagued the field of journalism.
Recently, a local newspaper’s editor complained of self-censorship. The media group has been claiming since several months that its readers are being deprived of their choice of newspaper because the powers that be had taken offence at a story that it had published. The problem lies in the fact that media outlets believe in their right to publish, which they are guaranteed by the state’s constitution, but they must also be cognizant that the truth must be kept subservient to national interest and not the other way around.
This is important because the news coming out of the country is not only read by Pakistanis but also foreign governments, who wait for opportunities to get their hands on anything which can be used against another state. For example, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif alleged that terrorists who were involved in the Mumbai attacks went from Pakistan. The Indian media did not bother to tell its viewers that the claim wasn’t proven in even in Indian courts and that Pakistan had itself offered assistance regarding the matter, which was evidence enough that the terrorists had indeed not been trained in Pakistan. The problem of terrorism in India lies not with Pakistan, but with the far-right Hindu politics in India. However, since a former PM had given the statement, Pakistan had to face embarrassment on the international stage. At this point, the media and the journalist who took the interview should have censored the news and reported the statement to the concerned authorities.
Despite that, the underhand disruption of the supply of newspapers or transmission of news channels is illegal and deprives the citizens of not only their right to information but also robs the press’s freedom.
That being said, there are certain red lines that the media is not allowed to cross in Pakistan. If newspapers and journalists dare to cross those lines, the state comes down on them with all its might. For example, during a far-right cleric’s sit-in and protest in the capital regarding the change in a certain oath clause, the state indulged in a total media blackout for a day, after which it was announced that negotiations between state institutions and the cleric had been successfully concluded.
Moreover, senior journalist Hamid Mir was almost fatally wounded in a gun attack, British Pakistani journalist Gul Bukhari was reportedly ‘picked up’ and then dropped back home after a few hours. In the coming days she alleged that she had been ‘warned’ and she felt that her ‘life was in danger’. Moreover, Journalist Ahmed Noorani was stopped in the country’s capital and ‘masked men with knives’ attacked him, leaving him critically injured. Similarly, journalist Asad Kharal was physically assaulted by masked men in Lahore.
The New York Times in 1971 and later the Washington Post published official United States state papers known as the Pentagon Papers. The papers revealed that several successive US civilian and military regimes had lied to the public about the Vietnam War. The Nixon-led US government got an injunction against the NYT barring them from publishing the papers any further, in what is known as the first assault on the freedom of the press in America. NYT and the ‘Post’ later got a court ruling in their favour and published the papers thereby, precipitating an end to the atrocious war in Vietnam.
Despite that, the underhand disruption of the supply of newspapers or transmission of news channels is illegal and deprives the citizens of not only their right to information but also robs the press’s freedom
So, the attack on the press’s freedom is not limited to Pakistan. The difference, however, is how the criminal justice system and the courts react to such a situation. The judiciary in Pakistan has become more vigilant now and one sees a suo motu action by the Supreme Court taken every other week. The question is will the courts step up to defend this freedom, without which Pakistan will be unable to transition into a working parliamentary liberal democracy?
On the other hand, it is not only the state that impedes the freedom of the press. Media outlets and newspapers themselves surrender their freedom due to the country’s capitalistic market structure. The owners of media companies and newspapers in Pakistan are essentially businesspersons and their ultimate goal is to turn a profit. It has often been seen in the case of Pakistan’s press that once that goal is threatened, a sudden change in the nature of the newspaper or media outlet’s headlines can be observed, despite objections raised by the organisation’s editors and journalists. As long as the press, media outlets and newspapers continue to put business interests over loyalty to the truth, they will continue to be blackmailed and subsequently curbed.
Decrying media censorship and self-censorship is all well and good but unless media tycoons and journalists rid themselves of corruption and vested business interests, freedom of the press cannot be achieved. They must remain conscious of the nation’s interest. National interest is easy to define. The state is the people. Anything pro-people is pro national interest and vice versa. Once corruption is eradicated, loyalty to the field of journalism and hunger for truth is established and national interest catered for, only then can the media assert its right to publish. And, the media’s right to publish is only asserted once it publishes.