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October 26, 2020

Uneasy times

Editorial

 
October 26, 2020

The relationship between the state and the media in Pakistan has always been a tense one. Starting with newspapers in the Ayub Khan era to the birth of private news channels during the dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf, the media has a long tradition of proud independence. Such bravery comes with significant risks. The powerful in the country have never reacted well to scrutiny and things seem to have only become more intolerant. In the latest case, senior Geo News reporter Ali Imran Syed went missing for 22 hours on Friday evening. A case was registered by the police, and the Sindh CM and the PM expressed concern over the disappearance. On Saturday evening, Ali Imran Syed returned home and contacted his wife. He has returned safely and has not been physically harmed.

We are no doubt extremely pleased and relieved that Ali Imran has returned home and is safe. However, anyone looking at the media landscape of the country today would come away with a feeling of unease. Fear of intimidation has forced media organisations to self-censor, violence is instigated against individual reporters and informal pressure is put on media owners and newspaper and cable distributors to disrupt media organisations that stand out of favour. Ironically, even as the country is in the midst of its longest sustained period of democratic rule and when there are more media organisations than ever before, the space for dissent has narrowed. We are living in a time of unprecedented assaults on media freedom around the world. And Pakistan’s journalists not only face some of the most crippling restrictions, they are also in constant danger of losing livelihood or facing even worse threats. A divide-and-rule strategy has been deliberately deployed to keep the media weak. Organised campaigns are launched against journalists. Dissenting voices are often ‘picked up’. What we get in the end is a media community that has to be careful every second it is doing its job because even when doing its job honestly, it has to face severe repercussions.

Traditionally, the job of the media is to keep power in check. Unfortunately, in Pakistan today it is the media that is being kept in check by power. What this does is deny citizens their right to information. What that does is that it automatically taints our democracy at all levels and allows for a skewed narrative. Let us not forget that restricting the public debate serves the interests only of entrenched powers. Let us also not forget that such precedents will eventually consume everyone. If “freedom of the press is a kind of beauty that one must have loved to be able to defend”, then what are we leaving younger journalists with if they never know what a free media looks like?