Mir Shakilur Rahman’s Arrest And The Muzzling Of Media
Talimand Khan writes that Mir Shakilur Rahman’s arrest is meant to give a message across the board that those media groups that refuse to practice self censorship would be subjected to a witch-hunt.
At last they got him! The Editor-in-chief of Geo News and Jang group, the largest media house of Pakistan, Mir Shakilul Rahman was arrested by the controversial anti-graft watchdog body National Accountability Bureau (NAB) on March 12. Ironically, the charge seems more bizarre than the act of his detention. However, it has also torn apart the thin veneer of plausible deniability so far worn by the regime while muzzling the media through financial strangulation and un-institutionalised black tools.
However, laying hands on the Editor in-Chief of one of the prominent and large media groups is a clear message: ‘kill one and deter thousands’. And this message has been conveyed across the board. This indicates that after 2016, the media muzzling and censorship entered a new phase i.e from controlling to the destruction of those media outlets which were hitherto not ready to be the mouthpiece of the regime.
By and large, the shrinking space for media corresponded to the space was gradually lost by the civilian dispensation. The pressure on media for self-censorship began to build up since the PTI’s sit in in 2014 and gradually inflated.
It is now an open secret that every media outlet, either print or electronic, was on a tight leash by the invisible power not only to ensure a stupendous coverage for the PTI’s sit in but also to block any critical views regarding PTI, Imran Khan and particularly the hidden hands behind this high political drama.
Geo News and Jang group was under tremendous pressure at the time not because they were not giving coverage to PTI during the so-called dharna but mostly for giving space to the alternate voices, especially accommodating the pro civilian supremacy points of view. In the past, the martial law regimes would rely on churning out press regulations and advisories, cancellation of declaration of the papers, financial strangulation of the newspaper by denying advertisements, wooing journalists to co opt through fear and favours.
When the de jure civilian government resisted the pressure by the powers-that-be to use the power of civilian institutions to control and muzzle the media, they (the powers-that-be) resorted to un-institutional methods of force and intimidation. The media houses like Geo/Jang and Dawn were resisting laying off journalists, taking off air talk shows and banning publishing those op-eds raising voice for democracy, civilian supremacy and defending human rights.
They revert to disingenuous non institutional method of controlling media through crude manner coupled with creating and supporting parallel media houses of dubious credibility. Similarly, an initiative had been undertaken, almost on industrial level, mushrooming indoctrinated corps of so called journalists and social media operators.
When Bol, a so called private TV channel was coming out of its chrysalis, their first target was Geo to lure journalists and anchors by offering exorbitant packages to them. “They offer almost ten times more than the Geo/Jang Group, even I have an offer but I declined,” this was revealed smilingly by a senior member of the editorial team I met in Lahore office of Jang Group in February, 2015. “We (Geo/Jang Group) are worried how to parry this onslaught,” she added. “We are under tremendous pressure not to publish anything against the establishment and PTI,” she informed me much to her chagrin. Perhaps, many would have joined if the owner (the front man) of the channel was not embroiled in a financial and forgery scam before its launch.
Since 2016, especially after the Supreme Court verdict in Panama case that disqualified the third time elected prime minster, Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, for holding Iqama (a work permit in a foreign country), the media began to feel the brunt of un-institutionally enforced self-censorship. Yet, though weakened, the civilian dispensation was resisting to rubber stamp the onslaught against the media freedom.
From August, 2018 onward, the powers-that-be consolidated their hold on all levers of power through the contrived populist façade of PTI. Since then along with the non institutionalised, they have now the luxury of using the institutional and financial power in the name of a civilian puppet not only to totally control the media but also to settle the previous scores with those who resisted the control.
Ironically, since then, new definitions of media freedom have been coined. This subtle subversion and one sided presentation of the narrative of the powers-that-be and their cohorts in the political spectrum had been given the name of media freedom. They (media houses) are free as long as they assassinate the politicians standing on the other side of the fence, non-conformist, dissenters, human rights defenders and paint them as anti-state and corrupt.
Look at how the media is now freely taking on against the powerful but when one asks them about who the powerful are, the rotted response is Nawaz Sharif and Zardari, the imaginary powerful who could neither save their power nor their skin.
And those who do not conform to this subtle subversion are yellow journalists living on doleouts of the powerful politicians, because Imran Khan knows well that it was neither his popularity nor his political economic agenda but a one sided propaganda and political engineering which propelled him into the prime minister house.
The abysmal governance and economic performance of 19 months further rendered him insecure. In fact, there is almost no hope for improvement as Imran Khan’s agenda was not welfare as this dispensation lacks control over the distribution of national resources. Imran Khan became prime minister in lieu of surrendering those power to the de facto. Same are the fears of his backers, as this power arrangement can only survive through unilateral propaganda of tamed media. Therefore, this regime is intrinsically insecure, and insecure regimes tend to be more ruthless in the suppression of political rights, particularly the freedom of expression and assembly.
Thus, the media, political parties, civil rights movements and civil society should close their ranks otherwise Mir Shakilur Rahman will not be the last one in the line. Presently, some media houses like Geo/Jang Group and Dawn are facing the full might of the state in the form of financial strangulation and administrative might. Next, they will go for its total destruction and others will not be immune to feel the brunt.
The author is a political analyst based in Islamabad.