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It Would Have Been Better To Restrict Officials With Harmful Opinions, Not The Media

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Pakistan continues its slide into a model of right-wing authoritarianism that properly belongs in the worst moments of the 20th century – perhaps in a Banana Republic from South America in that era.
It is likely to prove both self-destructive and unsustainable.

But the medium-term is generally of little interest to our ruling elites. The long-term, of course, is a concept fit only for intellectuals of questionable loyalty, who cannot “be positive” if their lives depended on it.

And since we are on the subject, “positive coverage” is now a matter of life and death in Naya Pakistan. Media workers, activists and intellectuals have been repeatedly given to understand that they risk forfeiting everything – not least life itself – if they deviate from the official demand for “positive coverage.”

As part of this process of using the state machinery in selective ways to mute discussion on some particular issues, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) moved to prevent television channels from airing news about the motorway gang-rape incident. PEMRA, we are told, acted based on an order passed by the trial court on the request of the police.

The move, as reprehensible as it was unsurprising, appears to have been triggered by an application before the court seeking a ban on media coverage of the incident. The Investigating Officer took the view that the incident was a heinous offence and that media coverage had been reckless, having a negative impact on the investigation itself.

Before we move to the dispiriting implications of such censorship, let us first point to the elephant in the room and be done with it.

Much of the ugliness involved in media coverage of the horrific case was caused by Pakistani officialdom itself. We refer to the views expressed the Capital City Police Officer (CCPO) for Lahore, who had been appointed by the PTI government only recently. The CCPO developed a penchant for airing his personal worldview in front of cameras, in which a woman is to be reminded that she is “no longer in France” when she ventures out of the home without a male bodyguard in Pakistan. Unfortunately, this perspective is fit only for the finger-wagging lectures of the average conservative drawing-room Uncle – and certainly not suitable for a powerful law enforcement official whose duties include protecting women traveling alone at night.

If media coverage of the case were truly so detrimental to the investigation, it ought to have led to some introspection on the part of those who appoint and protect such officials. Instead, PEMRA and the rest of the state machinery seem to have decided that the media is most responsible for the problem. No coverage, no uncomfortable questions. No discussion, no image problem.

Now, PEMRA’s role has always been in question – even in previous administrations. That is only natural for a government body which seeks to regulate the media in such a polarized environment as that of Pakistan. Most political battles here are fought on the media or in courts, rather than in the proper political institutions which were meant to resolve them, such as Parliament.

Yet, many observers are compelled to go home with the conclusion that PEMRA has become yet another piece of Naya Pakistan’s arsenal, with the goal being to curb dissent. Indeed, it is possible to predict with accuracy as to which perspectives on media have free rein from PEMRA – and which discussions are a temporary favour permitted to us by the high and mighty.

The reality of politics under a “hybrid” regime was going to seep into PEMRA’s work, even if its intentions had been the best. Great care would have had to be taken, so as to give the appearance of responsible and non-partisan regulatory work. Naya Pakistan cannot offer even the pretense of good intent.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, while this Banana-Republic-inspired right-wing authoritarianism can triumph by brute force, it cannot be sustainable. This is not because the Pakistani people have some special freedom-loving streak in them – very much the contrary, of course.

In fact, our problem is that the model currently being followed in Pakistan is based on the limited imagination of the official mind, which is hostile to people, politics and debate alike.

In such circumstances, it might be possible to censor media coverage and discussions of injustice and violence in the unfortunate geographical and political peripheries of the country, especially its western half. But to apply the same model in the ethnic and economic “heartland” of the country is unlikely to succeed.

People have followed the case and they will notice the disrespect for their sensibilities when they see that those in power have chosen to censor the media yet again – rather than their own unsavoury side, as represented by men like the CCPO.

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