Liberal Ideas

Free Press in Pakistan - From it’s beginning to now

Saghir NaqashSaghir Ahmed Naqash

In a developing country like Pakistan access to credible information has been a burning issue throughout its turbulent times of successive political eras. Years after years, since its inception concerted and conscious efforts were made at the state level to put general masses in utter oblivion about what was happening in the corridors of power. Though times with regard to media emancipation have changed in Pakistan now but the pattern of classifying information by the state still lurks in the present day of media hype and extolled view about the state of free press and free flow of information in Pakistan. Is it still an issue or the days of totalitarian control over information are over, needs to be gauged day after day while keeping an eye on its uninterrupted transparent flow to masses and its feedback?

Story of free press in Pakistan makes a sorry reading. Acts of Nov 03 2007 by a military dictator suspending transmission of private TV Channels speaks volumes of state tyranny in recent days it was latest but the most brutal example of how state had been dictating to the opinion makers. Has the mind set of the rulers changed is still a million dollars question? Analysts believe that successive Governments that came into power since 1947 have kept a distance from the baffled masses of Pakistan by putting flow of information under state control. This is one reason that why people hate their respective Government. Promulgation of press and publication Act 1961 during President Ayub era is generally considered the beginning of state apathy towards the free flow of information and masses access to it. Under this set up flow of information was the sole responsibility of the state. Since there was no independent source what so ever state revealed made the headlines and got general acceptance at the grass route level. Later national press trust NPT was introduced to take financial and administrative control of leading English and Urdu News Papers. Daily Ammrooz, Daily Mashraq, and Pakistan Times were the noticeable inclusion in NPT garb.

It was a beginning of a new era, Newspapers that were little bit liberal in their outlook were taken over to carry messages according to the wishes and whims of the Government. With regard to development of print media in Pakistan stick and carrot policy had been the order of the bygone days. News papers who voiced Governments concerns with care were offered lucrative advertisement package and those who followed the independent lines were often coerced to submission by blocking ads, the financial vein of any media outfit.

This was the state of media in Pakistan in 60s and early 70s, where respective Governments were the biggest stakeholder in the media development and that is why nobody escaped the institutionalized assault on the media. Freedom of the press has always been a buzz words during the early days of Pakistan history, where state rhetoric was aplomb to sooth public resentment over these issues. On the other hand those who took courage to take the bull by the hones and call spade a spade were victims of state torture and solitary confinement without any cogent reason. Vulnerability of independent journalists had also been another issue. Dilettantism was on the rise and under fear of state harassment. Few dared to write what they deem fit and true. Many left the profession and compromised their obsession of free media due to state coercion and uncalled for financial and economic constraints. There are many untold stories of state despotism to snub voices of reactionary tone.

Voices of independent analysts were muffled and so rare that people of conscience and reason started looking outside of the country for credible information.

BBC Urdu service, Voice of Germany and many other international sources became popular in Pakistan. Reasons for this are not unknown even today. Along with NPT incentives for print media, electronic media of 60s and 70s was also under state control. Pakistan radio in particular and later Pakistan Television strenuously followed state dictates and wishes and no food for thought was available for the disgruntled masses of the country.

This was the state of print and electronic Media when late ZA Bhutto emerged on the political horizon of Pakistan and succeeded in achieving broad-based national consensus for 1973 constitution. Through Article 19 of the Constitution Freedom of Expression was guaranteed and legal cover were provided for public speeches and independent publications. These measures injected some life into the day by day sidelined industry of print media in general but acceptance and acknowledgment of free media still remained a far cry during those days. Development of independent media has been a consistent struggle over the years in Pakistan. It was the tiny group of vibrant journalists who were instrumental in dethroning President Ayub Khan, but the fruits of this legacy was not allowed to pass on to next generation .

ZA Bhutto era, which is generally considered an era of democracy and human rights was also not an exception. Voices of dissent were seldom approved and dismissed from the public presence. Though NPT was disapproved during Bhutto era but the freakish attitude of the media groups to get more advertisement from government continued years after years and still lurks in the attitude of our media organizations operating today. Then Gen Zia came with all his farcical presentation of free media. These were the days when journalistic neutrality and impartiality was usually Tamed in torture cells across the jails in the country. Among them Shahi fort of Lahore was a formidable destination for any one who offered resistance. State coercion was the order the day and manhandling of media persons and confiscation of printing press became a routine matter. Beside all these unwarranted tactics employed by the successive regime to curb media, the good work to break the shackles continued and many braved the stressful days.

 After Gen Zia ten years of democratic rule deeply politicized the media. Pro-PPP and pro- Nawaz Media groups thrived during this period and favoritism corrupted the godly image of neutral media. One can describe this period with a media boom but what it accrued is not commonly approved by the journalist themselves.

Then Gen Musharraf came who pretended to be the champion of free press and freedom of expression. To extend his unconstitutional rule he flirted with the media and where ever he traveled to across the globe he took the media in a calculated way to have edge over his adversaries. To be more popular among the masses and with particular reference to media he ushered upon process of institutionalized development of media in Pakistan.

Private “TV and Radio” licenses were issued to whom so ever aspired to. But this system was regulated by vaguely and hastily drafted PEMRA ordinance and did nothing to streamline dissemination of news and views across the country. These were the times when commercial interests of the mega media groups took over the institutional interest of the media.

 Sensationalism is the by-product of this era and nobody knows how far this trend will go without check. Anchor persons who appear on different TV channels these days are being presented as icons and even bigger than their talk shows. Few of them started behaving like an aggrieved party after events following the dismissal of Chief Justice Supreme Court Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry on March 9 2007. Some TV Channels also struggled to broker a deal between Ghazi Brothers of Lal Mosque and the then Government leaving many questions unanswered. Present state of media is certainly a new found state where media has emerged with unprecedented power unlike in the past. This new found freedom of present day is so vibrant and inviting that News and Current Affairs Channels are fast becoming centre of public attraction. Media rights have been acknowledged and after public rejection of November 3 acts nobody now can challenge its authority and vitality.

Presently it is good to know rights of independent media but the question is, are we ready to take on our obligations Vis a Vis percolation of creditable information.

Empowerment of media breeds powerful society and to empower people the present Government is doing all to ensure public access to all sorts of information but the question is, is the public becoming more and more powerful day after day or not. For this we will have to wait and see how this new found freedom of media delivery to the masses.          

Since media in Pakistan has started discovering a new zeal with tenacity of professional purpose, there are certain queries that haunt the mind of those who do not take it for granted. For instance “do we need a free media” or a Responsible one and how present political set up stands by it. In the face of weak political and social institutions amid high rate of corruption is Pakistani media strong and matured enough as an institution to survive  test of all times? And is it an impartial media? Answers of these will take some time to come. According to Thomas Jefferson “Our liberty depends on freedom of the press and that cannot be limited without being lost.” Analysts including liberal elements believe that media has been a by-product of political dispensation of those who ruled. But now as the media has found a flamboyant touch to say no to any thing that violates any norm or law. This situation is fascinating many including liberals and even those who always take reference of their past experiences. Some say present media must carry on whereas others voice concern with regard to its code of conduct. The cardinal point remains that how long it will carry on. Will our media be successful in finding consistency and much-needed transparency? These thoughts only seem plausible when we look at things as they are and how do we take them. It is high time that media also regulates itself by working on a common “code of conduct” for itself. Failing to do so may result in some more limitations from the state or some other actors in the times to come.