During the dark years of Gen Zia ul Haq, journalists were publicly flogged, imprisoned or went into exile. When in 1988 The Frontier Post in Peshawar printed ten lines about how the General had dipped into the state exchequer (Rs 80 lacs) for his wife’s medical treatment in London, Gen Akhtar Abdur Rahman of the ISI pressurised the paper’s owner to dispense with the services of his editor and 17 other journalists.
Then, long with a muddled transition to democracy, came press freedom. Mohammad Khan Junejo removed controls on publishing and the press began to boom. Benazir Bhutto went some steps further: she curtailed the obnoxious practice of “press advice” and abolished the system of newsprint quotas which had hitherto kept the press in line. While she constantly complained about being misquoted and hated the tags attached to her husband, she never lifted a finger against the Pakistani media. In the event, a free press played no mean role in exposing the bunglings of her government.
As chief minister of Punjab, Mian Nawaz Sharif learnt the strengths and limitations of the press early and quickly. He used his discretionary fund to bribe weak-willed journalists with plots and loans in return for attacking the Bhutto government. When he came to power, however, he was inclined to be less than tolerant. That is why the newsprint quota system is back in vogue. That is also why editors now have to contend with press advice and thinly-veiled threats.
In recent months, the press has done well to expose corruption in the IJI government. But the prime minister likes to lecture editors on the virtues of press responsibility and ethics. He also believes that it is unpatriotic to criticise his government because he is doing such a fine job of it. That is unacceptable. No one has a monopoly on patriotism. At any rate, it is the job of the press to act as watchdog for the public interest, especially in a country where politicians are corrupt and accountability is a much abused word.
The mainstream newspapers are timid and malleable because they depend on government advertisements for a large chunk of their revenues. One reason why Mian Sahib is reluctant to privatise the advertising policy of the autonomous, public sector corporations, despite all his market-oriented flauntings,is that he does not want to relinquish control over the press. Fortunately, however, a small band of liberal, English language periodicals are propped up by the private sector and can thus afford to be fearless, despite increasing physical intimidation of their editors.
The case of the Editor of Facts International, Mr Ghulam Hussain, illustrates these points well. Mr Hussain was not so long ago an outspoken ally of Mian Nawaz Sharif. His paper raked up all the dirt it could find or contrive against Bhutto. Yet no one laid a hand on him. Now he has fallen foul of Mr Sharif for reasons best known to the two of them. Mr Hussain was beaten up and is now languishing in prison on a trumped-up charge after his bail was unprecedentedly cancelled. And he has all but been ditched by his erstwhile colleagues who are sympathetic to Mr Nawaz Sharif.
Notwithstanding the quality of the journalism practised by Mr Ghulam Hussain, his treatment at the hands of his former mentor is totally unjustified. So too is the pressure on The Frontier Post by the Ittefaq Group, on The Herald by Mr Marwat and on this paper by goons of the Punjab heirarchy.
From 1965 to 1991, 181 cases of violence against the press were documented. Last year, five journalist were murdered, 20 newspaper offices were ransacked, one editor and two reporters were kidnapped and four journalists narrowly escaped death. This year, there were at least 50 such cases, of which about 40 occurred in strife-torn Sindh. In most instances, it is true that the government of the day was not involved. But it is also true that it enjoyed seeing the press in trouble.
The worst enemies of the press are armed ethnic and religious parties who have much self-righteousness but no sense of tolerance. Thus the MQM and Jamaat-i-Islami, apart from fighting each other, can be fairly charged with harassing the press when it refuses to toe their line. That both antagonistic groups are ironically allied to Mian Nawaz Sharif’s government makes the task of the press all the more difficult.
But the press is learning to stand on its own feet. Despite the recurring violence, it is not likely to crumble before authoritarianism or fanaticism. Fortunately, the age of censorship is drawing to a close — satellite dishes and booster-antennas carry the message of freedom far more effectively than the jammers can shut them out. Fortunately, too, a handful of local journalists are now writing for the foreign press and cannot easily be silenced. The government-controlled media is consequently destined to suffocate itself. The sooner governments accept this logic, the better they will be in addressing their strategy vis a vis the press in Pakistan.