Why media censorship is problematic

Published 04 Jun, 2018 02:43am

There is a price to pay for professional broadcast journalism in Pakistan. That was the sobering message for the media from the blatant, but unofficial, blackout in large swathes of the country in April 2018 of Geo News, the market leader among 37 current affairs 24/7 channels. The blackout seemed arbitrary but not without method — transmission was disrupted intermittently, thereby delaying public awareness about the odd phenomenon.

Puzzlingly, for the public at least, there did not seem to be any explanation. The reason: neither did Jang Media Group, which owns Geo, publicise the matter at first or protest, nor did the remainder of the media industry report it even when it understood what was happening. Social media leaks were the primary source of information about the blackout.

Analysts and commentators soon started connecting the dots with allied developments — popular commentators, analysts and writers across several newspapers, including The News, The Express Tribune and Jang complained that their regular write-ups were being declined. Clearly, overt censorship was at play and it was spreading across mediums and media groups. Some current affairs analysts, like Babar Sattar, Gul Bukhari and Mosharraf Zaidi, retaliated by sharing their declined write-ups on social media.

It was only after international media, including BBC, al Jazeera, Reuters, The Economist, The New York Times and The Hindu picked up the story and reported extensively on it that the public discovered what was happening. And what they discovered from these reports is deeply troubling.

The security establishment, it appears, is enacting a wider enforcement of undeclared censorship on both the quantum and tone of ongoing current affairs news threads. Geo has refused to publicly acknowledge any discussions on the matter with the establishment even though in private its functionaries are not shy about mentioning their inevitable capitulation. The broadcast media’s regulator, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), has denied ordering any of its licensed cable distributors to censor Geo while the superior judiciary seems uninterested in investigating the matter beyond PEMRA’s explanation.

Pakistan’s history is replete with state enforced censorship. But what explains the severely coercive nature of undeclared censorship now? Media managers privately say that the angry but spirited resistance put up by Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz to the restrictions on their political ambitions and careers, the media caricaturisation of rising judicial activism against the political classes, the spontaneous civil society-driven rights movement piloted by Manzoor Pashteen capturing popular imagination, and the scathing media blowback and social media commentary about the reported ‘Bajwa Doctrine’ appear to have hit a nerve. Any freewheeling discussion and sound bite on the mainstream media on these topics seem to have become unacceptable to quarters that seek – and to a large degree have achieved – a national current affairs narrative mostly articulated through a security perspective.

Even a cursory examination of the 147 daily current affairs talk shows on 37 TV channels reveal a telling trend: caricaturisation of politics, Parliament and politicians; promotion of security doctrines, overt criticism of Nawaz Sharif by mostly censoring out his perspectives in favour of near-unbridled coverage of his opponents; mostly uncritical coverage of political statements and other activism by the judges; total blackout of the otherwise phenomenal Pashteen-led rights movement; and an army of retired military officials populating most of the talk shows to ensure that the discussions remain generally subservient to manipulated narratives and interests.

The recent actions against the likes of the Jang and Dawn groups, which now remain about the only sections of the mainstream media that make an effort to accommodate pluralist perspectives, came precisely because of this. The latest round of coercive censorship is an attempt to ensure that media narratives conform to the goals and objectives of the intended outcomes of the elections scheduled for the summer. Media professionalism is apparently not part of the plan.

This was originally published in Herald's May 2018 issue. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.