In 2002 Pakistan came 119 out of 139 countries
Our regime leadership has made it a habit to effusively praise the ‘press freedom’ that it claims exists in Pakistan. ‘’ At the 2006 awards ceremony of the All-Pakistan Newspapers Society Musharraf blithely announced : ‘I am for total freedom of the media, which is the fourth pillar of the state and is the first line of defence in today’s world.’
Not to be out done, Shaukat Aziz regularly blathers on about our press freedom. On one occasion the Business Recorder quoted him as saying, "There is a democratic environment in the country and that the press is free. We believe in the freedom of the press." But then inadvertently Shaukat Aziz came closer to the truth by adding, "We give permission for criticism…."
Yup, you are right Shortcut, but we also know that this permission is often forcibly withheld.
Now many readers of daily Yawn and some other English-language newspapers will probably disagree with me and point to the trenchant criticism of the military regime found in many of the Op-Ed columns.
My rejoinder to them is that there is no such ‘animal’ as part freedom. Either you have press freedom or you don’t. Here are some realities about the freedom of the English language Press:
- Of a country of over 165 million people, due to shockingly low literacy rates, only some 2 million read newspapers and English language papers account for only a fraction of those readers. Take Dawn for example, according to one of its own editors, M. Ziauddin, the newspaper ‘can write whatever it wants these days, but that's because hardly anybody reads it’.
- Secondly, the regime does not regard potentially hostile views of the English-speaking elite as posing any threat to its existence. And so allowing the English language press to be relatively free makes little difference as far Islamabad is concerned.
- On matters sensitive to the regime - such as AQ Khan, the Balochistan insurgency, etc. - even the English language press is regularly prevented from printing newsworthy stories.
While the regime may largely leave the English language newspapers alone, the same is not the case for the vernacular press and the local TV news channels.
According to Reporters Sans Frontières’s 2006 Report:
Pakistan remains attracted to control and censorship. Omnipresent military secret services continue to harass investigative journalists, while the Urdu-language press is closely watched.
A former editor of The News Beena Sarwar has described the activities of these agencies:
Among the tactics of intimidation used are phone taps, surveillance, threatening or interrogating phone calls, or visits from intelligence agency personnel.
At times the regime moves swiftly to prevent ‘harmful’ news from spreading, as was the case in late 2005 when it closed a local FM Radio relaying a BBC World Service Programme, which began providing independent news on the earthquake relief efforts.
However the coercive effort of the regime to control the large number of TV news channels is much more significant.
Unlike the newspaper circulation which is restricted by high rates of illiteracy, cable TV news channels, such as Geo, ARY, Aaj, Roshini, KTN, etc., are watched widely in urban areas and have acquired viewership running in tens of millions.
Consequently all these news channels are very closely monitored by the secret agencies. As the news editor of GEO News TV once told your Blogger, “Agency control is always just another phone call away”.
To illustrate this rigid control I need just give one glaring example.
Look at the photo up above. It was taken at the Grand Baloch Jirga which took place in Kalat, Balochistan on 21 September this year.
It was the first time Baloch tribal elders have all gathered together in 125 years.
And what prompted the Jirga? The killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti - a leading tribal chief, politician and possibly the best-known Baloch in Pakistan – at Musharraf‘s behest.
In view of Bugti’s death and the ongoing Baloch insurgency, the Jirga was a major news breaking story.
Now examine the picture closely. The man in the centre of the photo is the Khan of Kalat and in front of him are some two dozen microphones from every TV news channel in Pakistan - with the unremarkable exception of PTV. (Later from a person present at the Jirga confirmed that there were at least 25 to 30 news cameras present at the scene).
That evening the Baloch Jirga was the lead story on BBC Urdu News service. It was covered live by an on-the-spot BBC newsman. Listening to his radio your Blogger was startled to hear live chants from a reported assembled crowd of hundreds of armed Baloch youth loudly demanding ‘Azadi, Azadi’- much, I imagine, to the fury of Islamabad.
This certainly was news as far as I was concerned.
But did any of the news channels play their Jirga recording on their news programme that night (or even, for that matter, the next day)?
The story was aggressively killed by a military agency and there wasn’t a peep from anyone of the two or so dozen channels.
The irony is that it has been recently announced that Musharraf plans to hold a counter-grand jirga of the Baloch on 8th November. At first it was to be held at Quetta but subsequently The News reported that the venue was as yet undecided:
It would be either Islamabad or Quetta, an official told this correspondent. However, he said, its holding in the federal capital would not send out a good message. He said the president was being counselled to chair the Jirga in Quetta…Invitations are unlikely to be issued to chieftains confronting or criticising the government. All guests would be supporters of the government. However, the official effort is to wean away maximum number of tribal heads, who had attended two Jirgas, hosted by the Khan of Qalat, Mir Dawood, in the wake of killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti in a military operation in Kohlu mountains on August 31.
Umm...I like that bit about the effort underway to ‘to wean away maximum number of tribal heads, who had attended two Jirgas, hosted by the Khan of Qalat’.
Most likely it will be case of a plenty of stick rather than any carrots.
The latest news now is that the Grand Jirga will be held in Islamabad and the pressurized ‘Sardars, nawabs and tribal elders would be arriving in Islamabad on November 6 via a special plane from Quetta’.
One thing your Blogger can guarantee is that unlike the earlier media-throttled and genuine Baloch Jirga, this Hollywood-Jirga in Islamabad will take place in the full glare of press publicity and every TV news channel will be ordered to cover it extensively.
That, my readers, is the freedom of the press in Pakistan today.