Is Pakistan Media Anti-Establishment?

Is Pakistan Media Anti-Establishment?
Three years back when I was unemployed and looking for a job, I had to appear before the owner of a newly-launched news channel for an interview for the job of Islamabad Bureau Chief in that channel. The owner was terse and brute in his attitude. He didn’t want to know what capabilities I would bring to the bureau or what expertise I had in journalism, nor was he interested in listening to my self-praise about my 27 years experience in journalism, both print and electronic. He directly came to the point and asked me why Pakistani journalists are always pretending to be anti-establishment. Why don't they desist from speaking against the country itself? I was a little taken aback.

I have been dealing with owners of the news outlets since coming into journalism in 1990 and previously, all they were interested in was how a reporter or journalist could attract attention towards the news product he was producing, and not the rights and wrongs of doing journalism and that too from the perspective of security agencies. It was some years later that I came to sense the significance of this questioning. But at that moment, I tried to answer the questions as best as I could while mustering all my sense of history of Pakistani journalist traditions.

I told him that Pakistani media developed the tradition of being anti-establishment during its tryst with political developments in the country, over the course of the country's history, when martial law regimes opposed the media and journalist community. Pakistani journalism has a tradition of claims to represent the people and their interests in the society and military governments successively developed contradictions with the people and their interests. And in their drive to represent the people and their interests the media developed anti-establishment characteristics that brought it in direct confrontation with the successive military rulers and then during civilian tenures this tradition brought the media in conflict with the establishment which was still interfering in governance affairs.

During these years of oppression media men were shut out from the power corridors and in the process they developed suspicions about what was going on behind closed doors inside the power corridors. Then we didn’t have a very illustrious history of social and economic development and political stability and all this was intellectually blamed on the establishment.

Still, I told him that anti-establishment remained a minority belief till the late 1990s as the majority of journalists continued to look to state machinery for intellectual guidance. I told him that in my opinion, the revolutionary change when anti-establishment became a majority obsession, took place in the wake of 9/11 when the then military government of General Musharraf took a u-turn on foreign policy issues that conventionally defined Pakistan’s position on regional security issues like Afghanistan and Kashmir.
This was the time which radically changed the way Pakistani perceived their state and the state machinery or the establishment led by the military and its affiliated intelligence agencies.

Till this time Pakistani masses (and journalists as well) were made to believe that their policies on Kashmir and Afghanistan were working, and the world is listening to them and that they were a major player in the regional security game. The U-turn that the Musharraf regime instituted and intellectual revolution that it induced were all made the edifice of Pakistani journalists’ belief systems collapse within days. Remember this collapse of the belief system was induced by the state itself and also remember that the majority of the journalists’ used to and still looked towards state machinery for their intellectual guidance.

The traditional Kashmir position and associated beliefs about Pakistani being at the centers of world and regional security arrangements also collapsed. This opened the floodgates for new ideas that accompanied the coming of war against terror to this region and Pakistan. The tryst with open ideas was taking place at a time when Pakistani state machinery was itself in flux due to international pressure. The society was unhinged and so was the media. Pakistani media started to listen to long diatribes from state officials against the groups and policies on Kashmir and Afghanistan, which meant that they were wrong only a few months back. But are they right, now? Nobody had a clear answer.

The owner of the newly launched news channel was unconvinced. He seemed to have an agenda to prove me wrong—Perhaps my reputation had access to corridors where I was never allowed. “Then why is Indian media not anti-establishment?” he asked pointedly and perhaps innocently. Since he was a businessman I thought it proper to give him a brief lecture on different nature of civil-military relations in India, “In India, the military is not a dominant player in politics and public life” I told him, “But yes they do have a political establishment and it didn’t develop any contradiction with its media industry right from the very start”.

I told him the media in India was never oppressed generally speaking and it never faced problems of access in the power corridors. This is generally true about Indian media in big cities. In the periphery India media did face oppression and developed anti-political establishment trends. The owner of the news channel rejected my file—perhaps he was about to embark on a course in which a journalist like me never fit in. Now when I look back on that encounter I become more and more convinced that this interview took place at a time when owners in Pakistani media industry were cementing their alliance with Pakistani establishment to curb the anti-establishment trend in journalism.

Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.