Attack On Absar Alam: Pakistan Media In A Dark Place
When senior journalist and ex-PEMRA chairman Absar Alam was shot in Islamabad, the following words from Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation echoed: “People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do …does.” This attack has done the following: increased attention towards Absar Alam’s recently voiced views and led to international disrepute for Pakistan. It has angered the civil society and emboldened the resolve of journalistic community. In many ways, it has achieved the opposite of what was hoped by the perpetrators.
This is not the first time enemies of media freedom in Pakistan displayed ruthlessness in barbaric shape and form. The list of journalists who have been subjected to terror and threats in Pakistan is long. Saleem Shahzad was kidnapped, tortured and murdered. Geo’s Hamid Mir still carries two bullets inside his body and Raza Rumi, who’s driver died in his assassination attempt springs to mind. In almost all cases, the culprits remain at large.
The overall picture of media freedom in Pakistan is grim. To understand this, one must understand the layers of censorship that exist as a result of interplay between state pressure and self-censorship resulting in a sophisticated censorship regime.
On one hand, there is considerable degree of pressure on media outlets by high powered quarters and government to refrain from debating certain topics, such as role of key individuals in politics and corruption scandals across military and civilian government. Many people have been flushed out of the system through direct pressure, often exerted on producers, anchors, and reporters. If that doesn’t suffice, costly interventions have taken place such as pulling TV stations from the transmission, targeting advertising revenue or disrupting newspapers from circulation.
Those who have defied orders and pressure have been banished by a corporate controlled media. Cartoonist Sabir Nazar, among others, was fired by his news outlet following a backlash over his caricatural depictions of the current regime.
While General Zia’s method of silencing journalists was imprisonment and public lashing, the current administration’s strategy is multi-pronged. Echoing this sentiment, the producer of one of Pakistan’s top talk shows told Guardian, ‘’There are many layers of censorship by many quarters… it’s more sophisticated, and more nuanced, than it has been in the past.”
The government slashed media spending and began withholding advertisements which financially choked media outlets like Dawn and Geo. As a result, many journalists were laid off. Similarly, Dawn’s newspaper circulation was halted in many areas across the country.
Then, there is the curious case of missing and abducted journalists. Matiullah Jan was picked up in the heart of Islamabad, Geo’s Ali Imran Syed disappeared for 22 hours and social media activist Sarmed Sultan suffered a similar fate. Unlike previous eras, journalists’ families are subjected to agony, leaving many to think if their loved ones would ever return. From September 2018 through to January 2020, Freedom Network reports that seven journalists and one blogger were killed, six abducted, and 15 slapped with legal cases. There were a total of 135 violations against media practitioners. A corollary of that is Pakistan ranked 145th in the World Press Freedom index by reporters without borders.
This censorship regime has culminated into deeply embedded fear in many a journalists, activists and writers who expect persecution if they speak out in clear cut terms. In fact, attacks like the one on Absar deter many from speaking in similar fashion. This self-censorship has all but ensured reporting and opinions which are critical of the state and government are voiced in measured ways, without revealing too much.
Furthermore, the current regime has resorted to complete bureaucratisation and regulation of speech. A recently proposed bill by a member of the ruling party passed by a standing committee which prescribes 5 years in Jail for ‘defaming’ the armed forces is aligned with the strategy. Similarly, Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) banned airing Nawaz Sharif’s speeches and coverage of recent TLP protests.
The regulation transcends confines of electronic media to social media. The PTI government’s liberal usage of Pakistan electronic Crimes Act (2016), passed under the PML-N government is damning indictment for media freedom. The PTI government has left no stone unturned to use this act to target critical journalists over their social media postings. The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has filed numerous complaints under sections 20 and 37 of the law, including the one against Journalist Shahzeb Jillani who was accused of ‘spreading hate’ in society by criticizing ‘state institutions’. Absar Alam was also summoned by the FIA under the same act, owing to his recent social media posts.
Perhaps, censorship czars don’t realise that concentration of information is not as easy as concentration of power. Despite the attack, there has been an outpour of sympathies for Absar Alam and continuous speculations about the perpetrators. While it is too early to comment on who is behind the attack, one hopes that unlike other attacks, the government is able to pinpoint the culprits and hold them accountable.
The writer is co-founder Future of Pakistan Conference and a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science.