Pakistan: Press Freedom at Stake

January 4, 2019 Opinion , OPINION/NEWS , Pakistan , POLITICS

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Zeeshan A. Shah



2018 will be remembered as a ‘decisive year’ for Pakistan. Media and Communications reached unprecedented highs and lows, all in the span of 365 days. Press freedom eventually came under attack following the biggest political battle in the history of the nation between a past regime accused of massive state corruption and the new breed of change makers aiming to steer the country out of the economic crisis. Quite certainly, the year also marked an escalation in justice as many journalists were seen protesting in the streets across the country. The story behind it all is mysterious and sinister but there are a lot of sips between the cup and the lips. Sometimes what the eye sees is a different narrative than what actually is.


Is press freedom really at stake in Pakistan?


Let us recall a chain of events that took shape in 2018 that may have added fuel to the fire giving rise to the perception. The authorities in Pakistan blocked the website of Voice of America’s Pashto language radio service and cases were filed against the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement campaigning for provincial rights. Contrary to the above populist notion, the provincial government of the Pakistan Tehreek-E-Insaf was the most successfully driven government that not only ensured a free-press movement but also engaged in creating a peaceful transition of the province from war-stricken community to a terrorism-free state, forging peace treaties with warlords and tribal chiefs, ensuring police reforms, job creation and greater environmental governance through effective “Green City” campaigns that would eventually add value to better climate change resilience in the age of global warming.


Facts revealed that the media policy was revamped and curtailed for effective implementation through regulators by ensuring that negative anti-state content was barred as part of the peace initiatives implemented. If press freedom was compromised on provincial levels, then CNN and BBC would also have been taken off air, but no such thing happened. The above assumption was incorrect and biased as no such attack on press freedom was recorded. The reality infact, was that the country witnessed the most peaceful elections in the history of the nation, where all political parties were united and no acts of violence took place in the country and all media was invited to cover the proceedings, something that was unheard of in the country’s troubled past.


Pakistan’s electronic media regulatory authority issued an advisory note to all media channels and outlets last year, to ensure credible reporting of facts and not to resort to incorrect reporting of events related to violence, abuse, terrorism, and natural disasters to show and promote the real softer image of the country thereby reducing the overblown and overrated media perception created for many years that the country was going through an inside war.


The only inside war that was a constant in the country was the war against financial crime and corruption done by the previous governments of the Pakistan People’s Party and Pakistan Muslim League. We all know about the Panama Leaks and the aftermath of elections in the country that exposed the senior political and civil leadership involved in mega-scandals of trillions of dollars of money being illegally laundered out of the country.


2019 is the beginning of a new and more transparent system of governance battling this war on corruption that has changed the historical footprint of Pakistan across the global world, communicating a positive narrative both within the nation and beyond. This hardly falls under any press freedom violation as every media station or channel in the country has been given immense autonomy and freedom to report the changing trends inside Pakistan.


Malicious content and derogatory reporting by some of the media channels in Pakistan had been rampant for decades. Certainly, not many see it as a form of pressure on the media but as a conspiracy to undermine the judicial and governance system that is trying to reinvent itself after years of ongoing corrupt media practices. It has been proven today that past governments were using tax payer funds to fund malign campaigns and propagating their lust for corrupt power, that facilitated financial crime rise in the country, purposely concealing sources of illegal money laundering that proceeded to dangerous levels, involving major stakeholders in and out of Pakistan.


Post 2018 elections, the new government was the first of its kind to take a major stand against financial corruption by uncovering and exposing a money trail that was brewing in the country on account of financial crimes, better known as ‘white collar crimes’, where money was being looted and transported out of the country for many years, a reason that has been rightfully attributed to devaluation of the currency today and the diminishing state of the foreign reserves in the country.


For the media, it was probably the best year in history as it recorded the lowest number of attacks on journalists than the previous 3 years combined, together with no direct attacks of media channels or individual reporters. Rumors of dissent and atrocities on journalists surfaced last month when Jang Group, the country s leading media house, fired hundreds of people, closing down a number of their outlets. A historic move but certainly not unprecedented in media history.


The truth of the matter is entirely different…


The sudden employee attrition in Pakistan’s media sector that has followed since last month was an indirect outcome or after-effect of the ongoing war on corruption. When the government started exposing the money trails last year, it also exposed the media channels indirectly involved as facilitators for past corrupt regimes, most of whom are facing criminal and conspiracy charges in courts today. Some media channels, identified as part of ongoing investigations in financial crime, were found to have also been involved in wrongful reporting and “yellow journalism” with many senior anchors and reporters on illegal payrolls of different governments. These governments in return rewarded them through excessive perks like cars, houses, plots, air tickets and other entertainment kickbacks.


What was most unfortunate for the general media sector is that a lot of those funds were later used by media channel owners, as a source of revenue for making staff recruitments, salaries, huge bonuses, travel allowances, entertainment budgets and so on thereby catapulting the media sector initially into a frenzy where the connected people were being wrongfully benefitted by state machinery. Post money trails, the same channels decided to cut down staff costs and salaries in a move called “Rightsizing” that actually put the entire sector in trouble due to job and salary cuts.


The new government was wrongly portrayed as a hard liner regime by certain media as it was a clear and present threat to ongoing bad governance and rampant money laundering operations being carried out in the country. As part of the attempts by certain media channels citing “financial constraints”, they started a negative movement against the newly elected government through a pre-planned “deflection campaign” as their revenue chains were completely choked off by the accountability drive initiated through judiciary and government. With no more kickback commissions being funneled in, they in turn started laying off employees leading to chaos within the country as law enforcement agencies pressed down hard through the anti-corruption drive across the board.


It is important to mention here that a lot of senior powerful journalists who were previously unchecked were forced to resign or quit in view of the corruption allegations on them and not because of any other any issue of suppression, censorship or transparency. Failure to comply would eventually lead this trial to media owners and their illegal liaisons with top corrupt politicians.


In addition to this false propaganda, another point of relevance is about the false issue of “pressure on civil society”. The government, according to the constitution of the country, started questioning the “flawed narrative” being fed to the general public and opened up a transformative communication strategy, openly issuing press releases and media briefings to offset rumors of intensifying clampdowns on media and censorship.


The fact is that for the first time in the country s democratic history, the government has introduced a universal ‘public complaint management portal’ for the grievances of the general public, media bloggers, opinion makers and the youth of the nation to express their opinions freely. The same government also opened itself to self-accountability, a historic achievement applauded worldwide.


Shocking revelations were intensified further as the truth came to light as to why various media outlets failed to identify corruption scandals as swiftly in the past. As the new government took charge, the first major agenda was the fight against corruption.


Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was indicted and sent to prison on proven charges of graft and money laundering which is now part of history and the truth. Further investigations are underway against the Former President Asif Ali Zardari and his team of political alliances that would uncover the biggest ever corruption scandal in modern day history.


Justice delayed is not justice denied in the case of Pakistan.


Now if we were to carefully look through the frame of reference between the lines, all this talk about human rights violations by the government, accusations of injustice, disrespect of press freedom and encouraging press censorship is all a fabrication of lies to discourage a crackdown on money laundering as the war against corruption intensifies in the country.


The new government seeks to encourage global trade, tourism, economic prosperity and compliance with the rule of law in the country, a step that has been welcomed by the Judiciary, civil society, Armed Forces Community, the minorities and the general population of Pakistan. Reforms like good healthcare, less costly education, lower fuel prices and a greener more carbon-free society, were severely damaged and compromised in the past.


It is clear that spreading anti-state rhetoric through media and other sources is clearly an unsuccessful attempt to discredit the government and the judiciary by a small percentage of “elite bandits” involved in usurping state funds. Further attempts to siphon off state assets, property and reserves will be dealt with in the strictest and most professional ways by the government that promises “flawless accountability” putting the end to the politics of intimidation and creating a long term commitment towards progress and prosperity in one of the most diverse nations in Asia.


2019 is the new beginning for Pakistan and the only thing at stake today is the fate of the corrupt and the people who stand with them. Yes, their freedom is at stake today.





Zeeshan A. Shah

The writer is a Director at CNNA Pakistan – a leading advocacy institute and is an expert on International Relations and Education Policy.

With over 150 publications in major local and global social media & newspapers, he has been instrumental in producing over 5000 radio broadcasts aired globally.

A thought leader, environmental journalist, media broadcaster and a change maker with an acute focus on development affairs & education for Pakistan.

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