How PTI-Friendly Media Eventually Turned Into A Foe
Muhammad Ziauddin analyses PTI government’s relations with media in its first 500 days. Media hyped up Imran Khan’s anti-government protests in 2014 and cheered him on when he won the elections. But the PTI government did nothing to end media censorship. On the contrary, restrictions on media as well as financial crunch worsened under Khan’s watch.
For the Pakistani media, Imran Khan’s PTI was a breath of fresh air when it relaunched itself at the fag- end of 2011. Especially Khan’s promise of Tabdili had sounded exciting. The level of crowd involvement, colorfully dressed young men and women hailing at the top of their voices, Khan’s hard hitting attacks on the ruling elite sparing no punches and punctuating the drift with spirit lifting music and songs.
A cricket hero, a world class celebrity in his own right, a social worker of global fame with a Greek-god like physical attributes. Khan was just perfect for the media to lap up.
We did just that. We lapped him up and his party. His container performance was covered round the clock. And these became the highest rated talk-shows. And when he and his party pooled the highest number of votes in the July 2018 general elections to reach the power corridors, the media cheered it vociferously all the way to Islamabad.
The media appeared convinced that once the PM took control of things he would start in right earnest implementing his media related election manifesto promises which were just what the doctor had ordered.
Just before the advent of PTI-led coalition government the media had endured an unprecedented level of externally induced “self-censorship” through tactics unbecoming of a responsible state. Those who refused to fall in line suffered loss of readership and viewership. Unjustified cover-ups and the suppression of truth regarding crucial questions of public accountability had seriously affected the perception of the quality of democracy in Pakistan.
Overt and covert pressures on the media in the run-up to the elections had also cast aspersions on the fairness of the electoral exercise and were widely criticized by national as well as international observers including the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), The European Commission and the US based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
But instead of helping the media in getting back its freedom that had been curtailed drastically by the state during 2016-18, the new government let the state continue to manage the media while at the same time it withheld payment of media’s advertisement areas amounting to millions. The sudden economic squeeze caused the media to drastically cut its salary bills which resulted in thousands of media workers losing their jobs and the salaries of many thousands suffering severe cuts.
Had the government lifted the controls that the state had imposed on the media over the last some 36 months, perhaps, it would have regained the goodwill of the media. Still, there never was any serious media campaign against the government. In fact, the media was readily cooperating with the NAB in conducting media trial of its victims which in most cases were high profile opposition leaders.
But as the time passed and the ruling coalition was seen taking U-turns on a number of its election promises, media’s enthusiasm for the ruling party seemed starting to fade. But still there was no serious attempts by the media to indulge in negative reporting and critical analysis of the government’s performance.
The state, meanwhile had continued its coercive tactics in dealing with the media at large. It had continued ordering newspaper hawkers to stop distributing particular newspapers in particular areas and instructing cable operators not to broadcast particular channels in particular areas. It was stopping not only its own ads in these newspapers and channels but was also forcing the private sector to follow suit. The PTI government instead of stopping the state minions from continuing with this anti-media practice was making it appear as if the state was implementing a well- considered policy of the government in this regard.
The media was taken aback when he claimed during his first official visit to the US that media in Pakistan was more free than that of the UK. And when he charged the other day that the media has become a mafia, he only succeeded in turning even his ardent supporters in the media into not giving up supporting his policies, no matter how outlandish.
The most charitable explanation of his crassly negative perception of the national media is, perhaps his not –so- competent media advisers on failing to sell not- a -very sellable product have passed the blame on to the media fearing they would lose their job if they told him the truth.
The author is a senior journalist and editor.