July 18, 2018 | Daily Times

Ideological differences constitute an essential part of the human society. It is the key to reach inclusive decisions. But these differences also translate into political polarization, even in seemingly as homogenous societies as those in Scandinavia, or Iran, where the predominant majority of the population belongs to the same strand of faith.

But, if blended with personal or political agendas, it can turn into a contentious narrative, subject to interpretation by all key stakeholders. The latest BBC interview – the Hard Talk – with the president of All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS) betrayed the contradictions that a lot of Pakistanis in general live with.

This interview raises many questions regarding “the assault on media and the pressures that reporters/anchors are facing.”

Firstly, the claim, for instance, by sections of the media industry that “there is an unprecedented assault by the Pakistani military on the freedom of the press now,” deserves a fair evaluation. Should people who hold esteemed positions in the society make claims which, may not hold up to scrutiny by objective observers? The BBC anchor did that precisely on the claim of attack on media freedoms, when he asked for evidence of how one media group was facing intimidation.

The “unprecedented” part is extremely misleading, problematic and somewhat historical. As a teenager, I recall what General Ziaul Haq’s goons would do to newspapers and reporters; at times entire pages would be blackened by the censuring military officers from July 1977 onwards. Black and blank spaces on national dailies were a common sight for quite some time. Journalists were imprisoned, lashed and tortured for being critical of the martial law. The hair-raising book “The Press in Chains” by a veteran journalist late Zamir Niazi, documents some of the dark phases of censorship.

Secondly, During the interview, he actually made one of the most Pakistan-sensitive statements that has ever came from a western journalist: ‘Now I am a journalist, so of course I am inclined to always want to defend the freedom of journalists but you know I also have to consider what’s happening in Pakistan today. There is a real security problem in Pakistan. We just saw yet again in Peshawar, a suicide blast which killed a senior politician again very close to the run-up of the election. …………Army has a duty to the people of your country to secure the country first and foremost. Now is it not a real possibility that the kind of things you are saying, the inflammatory language you are using is undermining the ability of the military to meet that duty?’

Regardless who is responsible for Pakistan’s dire straits, the reality as of today is that the situation exists and any security establishment would do its utmost to stem the rot wherever and however possible. And that carries a cost. (Remember the Homeland Security regulations in the US post 9/11!)

This statement should help in rationalizing the discourse on media freedom and the notion of the security-driven policies but the concept of unbridled media liberties exists nowhere. It is not a black and white matter at all.

Ideally we must all strive to get and preserve these liberties. The most potent examples of media manipulation, which strike at the core of the ideal media freedom, are CNN and FOX news in the US.

Both channels keep peddling what they stand for. But both also face the consequence too for what they stand for – in whatever way possible.

The third point arising out of the BBC conversation relates to the rule of law and the respect for it whether the media can stand by people already convicted by the court.

Sackur, who must be aware of Sharifs’ Avenfield apartments, asked point-blank if ‘you the self-proclaimed independent impartial neutral media group covering Pakistani politics are now seen to be supportive and sympathetic of Nawaz Sharif, his daughter who are now, it has to be said, convicted criminals.’

This underlines a basic point relevant to a functional democracy: if there are institutions and principles, which politicos took oath to defend as part of their democratic responsibilities, then accept the consequences for this too. You can’t turn and twist those responsibilities the way they would suit you, is the message that comes across in this pointed conversation, in which the interviewer reminded ‘not to exaggerate’ getting to the ‘specifics.’

Fourth, anchoring arguments in what happens on the social media or reference to foreign organisations to defend an argument is also contentious. Social media platforms, as we all know, are also extensively used for propaganda. It is Pakistani reporters who feed these watchdogs and often they are not without biases, and are at times accusatory based on hearsay or motivated reporting.

While big questions accompany the entire electoral process, fingers being pointed, and countless Pakistanis – for political reasons – tend to always knit-pick in almost every issue, the BBC interviewer, does leave a positive message for all us: ‘May be things aren’t perfect in Pakistan’s democracy today but if they are better than they have been at points in the past maybe that’s worth celebrating.’

Published in Daily Times, July 18th 2018.

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