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The media in Pakistan: a new era?

Beena Sarwar
12 December 2001

For many Pakistanis, one of the positive outcomes of 11 September has been a change in the country’s ‘Afghan policy’. In the era of military dictator, General Zia ul Haq (1977-88), the media was severely restricted in its ability to report accurately from or about its north-western neighbour. The print media, at least, fought these restrictions with the limited weapons at their disposal: the restrictive official directives that landed on editors’ tables would sometimes lead to newspapers printing blank spaces on their pages – a symbolic gesture of protest against the censorship they were unable to resist. There was no such rebellion in the ranks of the electronic media, which was under direct government control.

The ways of censorship

In the past, even supposedly democratic governments have used various means to control the press, through tax cases, withholding newsprint (which is imported through government channels) or pulling out official tenders, notices and advertisements (which the smaller newspapers rely on for revenue). In 1998, when the country’s largest publication house, the Jang Group, tried to break Pakistan Television’s monopoly on news and current affairs by planning a satellite channel, it became clear how far the government would go to stop this. The democratically elected but dictatorially inclined Nawaz Sharif accused the Group of tax evasion, revived old tax cases, and withheld newsprint, forcing the Group to reduce the size of some of its daily papers from twenty-four to eight pages. Sharif’s henchmen personally pressurised the Group’s owner to support the government on various policy issues and fire, or at least sideline, several journalists (this writer included). He refused, but the stand-off ended only after the idea of the satellite channel was quietly dropped. It is only now being revived.

An easing of these restrictions have led to the launch earlier this year of two other satellite channels which have begun quietly running current affairs talk shows since 11 September, although they have not yet begun news programmes. Although the present military government is reportedly not thrilled about these developments, its response is cautious resignation rather than hostile vendetta; perhaps present geo-political realities leave it with little choice.

Rumours and riots

Since the Zia era, successive governments have encouraged or allowed the media to promote the militant religious point of view, putting progressive forces on the defensive. In the immediate post-11 September period, US President George Bush and the US intelligence agencies’ indictment of Osama bin Laden was seen in Pakistan as an attempt to scapegoat Islam. In this atmosphere, the circulation of two truly global rumours (both circulated the world via email, origins unknown) gained widespread acceptance.

The first rumour related to the information that four thousand Israelis/Jews were absent from work at the WTC on 11 September. This news was prominently published, for example, in the Urdu language daily Jurrat of Karachi on 24 September, in a ‘special edition’ banner headlined Usama vs Bush. A four column strap line in the bottom half of this page asked: “Why were four thousand Jews absent from the World Trade Centre?” The headline below it read: “The USA should reflect on the role of Israel.”

The second rumour was that CNN had passed off 1991 footage of celebrating Palestinians as current. Even the respected English language daily Dawn prominently published the email that started this rumour (ostensibly from a Brazilian student called Marcio A.V. Carvalho) as a letter to the editor titled “CNN using 1991 footage”, on 21 September. Dawn also took this rumour to be fact, in an editorial (“Why this media circus”, 25 September). The editorial’s last paragraph starts: “On Monday night, the BBC broadcast a particularly vicious attack on Pakistan in its special broadcast to South Asia, with the talkshow host putting words in the venom-spilling mouth of the Indian Home Minister. Earlier, the CNN had flashed images of Palestinians celebrating the 11 September terrorist attacks on America within hours of the mayhem in New York and Washington. The only problem was that the footage dated back to the Iraqi attack on Kuwait in 1991. These are only two of the many recent examples of the western media’s insensitivity…”.

CNN’s denials were confirmed by an independent investigation by London-based Iranian filmmaker Taghi Amirani; corrective emails were subsequently circulated – but no newspaper here printed them. So the rumours continue to circulate. At a recent seminar in Kathmandu for political journalists covering political violence, an Indian television reporter also talked about the CNN 'fraud'. She had not come across CNN's denial, or Amirani's investigation.

Opposition to the ‘war’ was under-reported in the Pakistani as well as the Western media, while extremist, right-wing groups were given space and time out of proportion to their popularity, support and numbers. Bearded mullahs make good ‘copy’ although they have never obtained more than seven per cent of the seats in any national election. Footage of a demonstration in Peshawar was broadcast several times a day for three or four days running on CNN. How much is the media complicit in providing them with the publicity they crave, how much of what they do is for that publicity? Sean Langan, the British journalist who was in Peshawar in September, told a gathering back in the UK that as soon the cameras were turned off, the same fierce, bearded men who had appeared ready to kill him earlier, chatted amicably, asking, “You’re from London? How about a cup of tea then?”

The appeal to emotions based on nationalism, religion, security and identity would be considerably hampered if people could see the full picture, as Todd Gitlin pointed out in his 1980 book, The Whole World is Watching.

Religious militants in retreat?

The Pakistan army’s involvement in supporting the Taliban has only recently ended – and that too when the President, General Musharraf, threatened the officers of the intelligence agencies who were still involved, post-11 September, in aiding the Taliban. This involvement is still treated with caution in the Pakistani media. Television doesn’t touch it at all, while some newspapers may mention it, but citing sources like the New York Times or the BBC. And for the first time, reports critical of the government’s Kashmir policy are beginning to be evident in the papers, which have of necessity also been cautious about reporting on the misdeeds of militant groups in Pakistan.

The government has also, until recently, turned a blind eye to their attacks, for example, on development-related non-government organisations in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province and Balochistan, which border the tribal areas and Afghanistan. Many of these NGOs are working for women’s and girls’ education, and micro-credit schemes, all of which are anathema to the jehadis (militants). At an emergency meeting of some NGOs in Peshawar on 8 October following attacks on three girls’ schools, participants accused attackers of settling scores with the NGOs in the guise of protests against the US attack on Afghanistan.

These attacks have stopped since the arrests in early November of several religious leaders – according to a newspaper editor, at their own request as they feared reprisals from the parents of the boys they sent off to fight and be killed in Afghanistan. In an emotional appeal, one of these leaders, the Jamaat-e-Islami’s Qazi Hussain Ahmed warned that after Afghanistan, the next targets would be Kashmir and Palestine. The appeal appeared in a newspaper advertisement (30 November) asking for the people of Pakistan to unite against the country’s “cowardly and pro-Western rulers”. Calling for donations to the cause of the oppressed of Afghanistan, Kashmir and Palestine, Ahmed also asks for a show of unity with these causes every Wednesday and Friday. Although these demonstrations petered out some time ago, the influence of the Jamaat is evident in the prominent display of the advertisement in the powerful (and pragmatic) Urdu-language daily Jang (whose reported print run is more than the combined circulation of all the other papers combined).

Freedom and its limits

Since the government’s about-turn on the Afghan policy and the subsequent rout of the Taliban, there has been open criticism of its previous pro-Taliban policy, on television as well as in newspapers. Guests appearing in the sometimes live talk shows and interviews, on the satellite channels as well as PTV, are critical of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies as well as the Taliban. However, the press in general remains relatively cautious in staying within the limits imposed by religious groups, fearful of their track record for violence.

Religious sensibilities are brittle and easily offended. Journalists usually take complaints in their stride but also – to be safe – promptly print apologies, as happened in two recent cases with The News (Jang Group). One complaint was about a (western) syndicated cartoon on the leisure page, which drew attention to the word ‘g-o-d’ spelled backwards. A female caller threatened to take the matter to the Jamaat-e-Islami. There was a similar reaction to a joke printed in a children’s magazine, also published by The News, in which a little boy asks his mother if God lives in the bathroom, since every morning Daddy banged on the bathroom door yelling, “Oh God, are you still in there?” The newspaper has also had complaints from readers upset at what they call its ‘anti-Taliban’ policies. As these examples indicate, the path to a free media in Pakistan has some way to go.

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