About a year ago, office-bearers of the Khyber Union of Journalists (KhUJ) called on high-ups of the provincial information department to help end the blockade of advertisements to one of the leading English-language newspapers of the country.
While governments often curtail official press advertisements as a pressure tactic to attain favourable coverage, at that time the issue was surprisingly different. “The information department had blocked the paper’s adverts because the chief minister was not given coverage on the daily’s front page,” recalls KhUJ President Fida Khattak who was privy to that meeting.
A Peshawar-based market manager of an English daily, who wished anonymity, said that recently their advertisements were also blocked. When he approached the information department, he was informed that the ads were stopped due to a story against the government published in his paper. He said that the quantum of their advertisements was slashed by 40% and late jumped to 60%.
Such arm-twisting of media outlets has adversely affected the efficiency and credibility of independent journalism. A number of journalists, especially those covering the secretariat beat, told Sabaat that they have stopped doing stories against the government as their main desks are not ready to risk the smooth flow of revenue in the form of government advertisements.
“For the last six months, I did not file a single investigative report unearthing the corrupt practices of the government, not because the government is corruption-free but due to the possible repercussions my newspaper would be faced with in the backdrop of doing such reports,” said a journalist in Peshawar who covers governance issues. He also declined to be named.
KhUJ Secretary-General Naeem Ahmed is of the opinion that these steps are aimed at taming the media on the models of Saudi Arabia, China and Turkey. “In my humble opinion the incumbent government has succeeded to enforce Saudi Arabia, China and Turkey model of journalism in Pakistan. In these countries the media is actually a mouthpiece of their respective governments. Same is the case in Pakistan now with an exception of a couple of media houses.”
He went on to add that presently most of the newspapers in Pakistan, including those English dailies having a history of bold editorial policies, are compromised. “These dailies have now turned into propaganda machines of the government, carrying handouts and press releases as lead stories and confining themselves to reporting only events-based stories,” asserted Naeem.
The annual report of IRADA, titled ‘Pakistan Media Legal Review 2019: Coercive Censorship Muted Dissent’, lends credence to these apprehensions.
The report states that Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) blocked transmission of a number of television channels besides banning television anchors and their programmes.
The very first day of the year 2019 witnessed the ban on television anchor Orya Maqbool Jan, imposing a month-long ban on his programme Harf-i-Raaz. Likewise, on January 30, 2019, Pemra imposed a 30-day ban on Dr Danish’s programme ‘Point of View with Dr Danish’ on Channel 24 for “levelling a variety of unsubstantiated, false and malicious allegations” against the managing director of Oil and Gas Development Corporation Limited.
Pemra also conditioned the appearance of retired military officials in talk-shows with the prior clearance of the Inter-Services Public Relations, the army’s media wing.
On July 1, 2019, the interview of Pakistan Peoples Party Co-Chairperson Asif Ali Zardari’s with Hamid Mir on Geo News was taken off-air soon after it started.
Similarly, on July 11, 2019 the interview of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Vice President Maryam Nawaz was taken off air just a few minutes after it started.
A political analyst, Hafeezullah Niazi, also bore the brunt of Pemra, which banned his appearance on television channels on October 2, 2019 for 30 days.
Likewise, television channels did not give any coverage to the press conference of the head of his own faction of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, on October 13, 2019. Pemra authorities had purportedly instructed them not to give any coverage to the opposition politician. The authority also banned the appearance of JUI-F leader Hafiz Hamdullah on all television channels, claiming that he was not a Pakistani national. The same way, Pemra imposed fines of Rs1 million each on News One and Geo News for airing “malicious, highly seditious and scandalous programmes against National Accountability Bureau chairman.”