In Pakistan, media is the enemy
The prime minister, Imran Khan, clearly abhors the Pakistani media. Apart from a handful of exceptions, Khan doesn’t seem to be happy with the Pakistani media. Last month, Khan said he has stopped reading newspapers and watching television talk shows. “I am used to criticism, being in public life for 40 years, but the last one and half years I have been hammered in media. The best I could do was I stopped reading newspapers and don’t watch evening chat shows,” said the Pakistani premier at Davos.
Nearly two weeks ago, he singled out the Dawn and the Jang media groups during a meeting with journalists. He has called the media a ‘mafia’ and journalists and media houses ‘corrupt’ as well as vilified those who have criticized his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, when he was in the Opposition and now when his government is in power. For some odd reason, Khan thinks that the media are out to get him. This is not true. Even those journalists who were seen as having a soft spot for the PTI and Khan in the past are now critical of his government on account of their lack of performance and the worsening economic situation in the country.
Imran Khan the cricketer, Imran Khan the philanthropist, and even Imran Khan the politician used to be the media’s darling. He was given coverage even when the PTI did not have many seats in Parliament. His 2014 dharna against the Nawaz Sharif government was given live coverage on all television channels. His politics was romanticized. It didn’t matter that he was being propped up by the Establishment; many in the media gave credence to his narrative against corruption. He would call Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari “chor/daaku” and the media would go gaga over it. He was portrayed as a ‘messiah’ who would eliminate corruption and turn Pakistan into an economic giant if he came to power. What has happened is the exact opposite. Pakistan’s economy is in a mess and nobody knows what to do. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs as businesses have shut down or laid off workers because of rising inflation. Food inflation is in double digits. Electricity and gas prices are at an all-time high. This doom-and-gloom cuts across classes. This is why Khan’s government is being criticized but the kaptaan doesn’t like being questioned. He thinks the media are the enemy when it’s actually his government’s performance that is his worst enemy.
In its editorial titled, “Shooting the messenger”, Dawn rightly says: “To shoot the messenger is the go-to tactic for authoritarian leaders; facts are anathema if inconsistent with the airbrushed version of reality they choose to project. When the government demonises the media as the ‘enemy’, it creates a buffer against the public being informed of inconvenient truths and against poor governance or corruption being exposed.”
When Khan came to power with the help of the Establishment, the media faced censorship like never before. Shows were banned or dropped, columnists banned, analysts blacklisted from appearing on television, coverage of certain political rallies were prohibited and so on. The media were expected to toe a certain line.
In a recent example of gagging the media, the journalist, Anas Mallick, tweeted that the PTI government has moved the Federal Investigation Agency against Khalid Butt, Faysal Chaudary and Mustafa Chaudhary — the team of satirists who host a political satire show on a local TV channel — for mocking the prime minister. The government wants to register a first information report against the team as the performers had made fun of the premier’s statement about nurses looking like hoors (heavenly beings) to him after the doctors had given him painkiller injections in 2013 when he suffered a fall during the election campaign. Butt and his team have made fun of everyone, from the leader of the Opposition, Shehbaz Sharif, to the chief minister of Punjab, Usman Buzdar, to the PML-N leader, Khawaja Asif. By trying to register an FIR against a satirical show and its team, the PTI government has shown that it cannot bear any kind of criticism.
Pakistan has faced censorship in the past. So this is nothing new. Our fundamental rights have been quashed earlier. But the level of authoritarianism that this government has adopted takes the cake. Pakistan’s journey into the dark alley of fascism has been quite swift under the current regime — if you talk about the treason trial against General Musharraf, you’re labelled anti-State but if you demonize the politicians, it is lauded. This is a country from where a terrorist, Ehsanullah Ehsan, fled to Turkey but the authorities have not even bothered to address the issue. Their answer is silence.
From levying sedition charges against peaceful protesters protesting against the arrest of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement chief, Manzoor Pashteen, to charging people with terrorism due to online dissent and putting human rights activists on the Exit Control List — these are things that no democratic government would do. Khan wants Naya Pakistan to be like China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran where the media and the social media are controlled and dissenting voices are dealt with an iron hand.
The author is a journalist based in Lahore; email@example.com