No State Credibility Without Free Media And Transparency
Pakistani media and state are both facing crises of their own. The media is passing through a difficult time with joblessness for working journalists on the rise and curbs on the freedom of expression rampant. The state, on the other hand, is facing a crisis of credibility. The state’s credibility at the international level is directly proportional to the amount of freedom of expression it allows within the country.
Firstly, if there is a free press in existence in the country, it gives credibility to the state machinery that it is not only transparent but it also doesn’t have any skeleton in its cupboard. Secondly, if there is freedom of expression prevailing in a country like Pakistan, which is engaged in many a regional crisis, will make the international community believe that it is not hiding its acts, which deal with its relations to the external world.
Any Pakistani government or any institution, which is part of the state machinery, is inflicting a fatal blow to the credibility of the state, if it is instituting measures to curb the freedom of expression in the society. Many of the successes in international diplomacy of last military government in Pakistan could be attributed to the fact that the military dictator, General Musharraf succeeded in creating an impression in important world capitals—including Washington, London and Paris and other European capitals—that he had allowed greater freedom to the media during his tenure compared to any of the former civilian government in post-Zia period.
Few stories, here and there, about militant training camps in Azad Kashmir and other parts of the country by local correspondents went a long way in creating the impression of freedom of expression in the society. These stories caused less damage to Pakistani position at the international level and increasingly served the purpose of building the impression that Pakistan under Musharraf was a country that allowed journalists to move freely in the country. Investigative reports in the local media during Musharraf’s time revealing the internal mechanics of political dynamics within the military regime also helped the military government to sustain its image as a provider of freedom to the media in the society. Some of the authors of these reports were publicly shown to be rubbing shoulders with military top brass.
How exactly Musharraf regime sustained this image as a regime providing freedom to the media needs a complex explanation?. After all there were instances of killing, kidnapping and harassment of senior journalists during Musharraf’s tenure. But these instances were swept under the carpet as leaders in western countries heaped praises on the military dictators.
In those days Pakistan was the subject of large number of news stories, analysis and comments in the western media—precisely because in the wake of 911 Islamabad started to host a large number of journalists from western news outlets. They had arrived in Islamabad after Pakistan entered into a military alliance with Washington. Thus creating a space for journalists friendly to political, military and intelligence establishments in western countries to arrive and cover Afghan war and power dynamics in Islamabad from a close quarter. These journalists found open doors to power corridors in Islamabad that helped in the generation of a large number of Pakistan stories in Western media. All of this hectic activity contributed in reinforcing the impression of a freer Pakistan in the western capitals.
Center of gravity at international stage shifted elsewhere as the Arab Spring forced Western journalists to lift their anchors and move to stories generating capitals in Arab world. This, however, coincided with two other developments—Firstly, estrangement between Islamabad and Washington at the political and military level, and secondly, this was followed by dwindling tolerance in Pakistan military and intelligence establishment about allowing coverage of their internal dynamics in the western and local media.
2014 saw the start of major political intervention by Pakistani establishment in domestic political scene, which was dubbed in Pakistan’s local media as “Political engineering”. The intervention was so obvious that it was all over the media. This coincided with the rise of anti-military establishment groups like Pushtun Tuhufaz Movement (PTM), a wide and blow by blow account in electronic media of PTM’s activities would have put a major dent in the image of Pakistani military establishment as an invincible force in the society.
But these were not the turning points in Pakistani establishments thinking on media industry and its function in Pakistani society. The turning point came in April 2014 when Geo Television boldly reported the incident of an attempt on the life of senior journalist, Hamid Mir in Karachi. Mir received six bullets. GEO directly accused the then sitting DG ISI to be the mastermind of the attack. The coverage convinced the power wielders that the impression of their invincibility and free media cannot co-exist in the society. Rest of what happened is common knowledge.
The state will have to choose between two options: its credibility as a legitimate actor at the international stage—which is tied to the tolerance it will display in relation to freedom of expression—and the option of protecting its image as an ‘invincible’ and unchallenged force in the society.
If it cannot maintain its credibility, its image of invincibility might come next to be demolished. But maybe our establishment has already decided that it would decisively move into the authoritarian camp in the coming geo-political competition.
Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.