Recently, what happened, at the “Defend Media Freedom” conference in London was, neither unusual nor it was out of the blue. With the kind of policy on Media Freedom and actual freedom of speech back home, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi participating in the conference should have foreseen the trouble coming his way.
Media gag is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan. In fact, it dates back to the period of the first dictator of the country General Ayub Khan who promulgated the Press and Publication Ordinance (PPO) in 1962. This ordinance empowered the authorities to confiscate newspapers, close down news providers, and arrest journalists. It is said that by using these laws, Ayub Khan nationalized large parts of the press and took over one of the two largest news agencies while subjecting other agencies into a severe crisis. This law did not even spare the Pakistani Radio and Television, which was established in 1964. They too were brought under the dictator’s control.
These restrictions were further exploited and given draconian features by General Zia-Ul-Haq in the 1980s. As per new laws, the publisher would be liable and prosecuted for a story, not to the liking of the administration even if it was factual and of national interest. Censorship during the Zia years was direct, concrete and dictatorial which created unwarranted hardships for the media houses. After his death rules, governing media were bit relaxed but still remained complicated.
As of now, though the journalists are free to report on most things, yet any articles critical of the Government or the Military are automatically censored. To provide more teeth to the governing agencies another feature called Blasphemy was added to it. Anything perceived as blasphemous are automatically subjected to censorship and the person responsible of writing or publishing such matter were punished without any legal trial.
Since 2010, more than 60 journalists were killed with 14 in 2014 alone. Press Freedom Index, Reporters without Borders had ranked Pakistan 139 out of 180 for freedom of the press. Issue of the arrest warrant for Assistant Editor of Dawn, Cyril Almeida in 2018, was yet another indication of Freedom of Press. And all these are done on the name of either being blasphemous or for the National interest.
Recent incidents of PEMRA issuing the fresh directives about “satirical content”, censoring the videos of Maryam Shariff, the daughter of Nawaz Shariff and blocking the telecasts by three private TV channels without any caution or explanation, shows the degree of freedom for speech enjoyed by the media.