June Issue 2007

By | Editorial | Opinion | Published 17 years ago

Desperate men and desperate times call for desperate measures.

After consistently proclaiming that he was a staunch believer in the freedom of the media, General Musharraf struck a deadly blow to press freedom in the shape of the Pemra Amendment Ordinance 2007.

Issued only two days prior to the convening of the National Assembly — perfect timing, to avoid any dissent and debate in the august house — this draconian order gives sweeping powers to PEMRA to seal offices, seize equipment and fine any channel that is critical of the government or the army.

The ordinance does not come as a surprise. The general’s growing disenchantment with the media was becoming only too obvious. Of late, he was increasingly critical of the media. At the launch of a new English news channel, he attacked the media for showing the carnage of May 12. Even American channels didn’t show the victims of a shooting incident in a US school, he remarked.

True, but the dead bodies of Saddam Hussein, his two sons and Mullah Dadullah, plus the killings in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan have all made it to the BBC and CNN.

What rankled the most with the general was the TV networks’ live coverage of Justice Chaudhary’s processions through the length and breadth of the country and the sea of people present to receive him. Geo TV’s office in Islamabad was vandalised and Aaj TV was targeted by gunmen in Karachi.

However, the excuse that was used to crack down on the networks was the live telecast of speeches, prior to Justice Chaudhary’s address at a seminar held inside the Supreme Court building, in which “strong language” was allegedly used against the general and the army.

Is the media now going to be held responsible for what people might say in a live coverage or a live discussion? One has seen serving ministers of the present dispensation making blistering attacks on the lawyers and the opposition at General Musharraf’s rally in Islamabad last month covered live by all TV networks.

If that was acceptable, why is this unacceptable? One female parliamentarian from the ruling party, in a TV show, had the gall to demand that TV channels extract promises of good behaviour from the lawyers in return for live coverage. So, are journalists now expected to go around taking oaths of good behaviour from all participants on their shows?

The government also accuses the channels of always highlighting their negatives and never the positives. Not true. But even it were, the fact remains that the media is not in the business of public relations; its role is that of a watchdog, which implies keeping a check on state institutions. Why, then, should it be expected to play the role of the government’s mouthpiece? Radio Pakistan and Pakistan Television are performing that job rather well, thank you.

While it is true that satellite television in Pakistan is one of the Musharraf government’s true legacies, to expect private channels to be beholden to them always, and to use their licenses or their uplinking facilities like a Sword of Damocles to keep them in line goes against the spirit of a democratic dispensation.

The Pakistani press has come a long way from the days of the other general, when “errant” journalists were lashed and jailed and fined. And it will go a long way to ensure that those days never return, general or general.

Rehana Hakim is one of the core team of journalists that helped start Newsline. She has been the editor-in-chief since 1996.