November Issue 2007

By | Editorial | Opinion | Published 16 years ago

It’s a contradiction in terms. General Musharraf saysthat he’s in the third phase of his transition to democracy. But his declaration of a state of emergency, holding the constitution in abeyance and ordering amendments to the PEMRA Ordinance, 2002, and the Press, Newspapers, News Agencies and Books Registration Ordinance, 2002, strike at two of the fundamental pillars of democracy: the judiciary and the media.

The move comes as a major disappointment, but not a surprise. Clipping the wings of the judiciary was a foregone conclusion. The president’s election was on the chopping block, as was the National Reconciliation Ordinance 2007 that granted amnesty to allegedly errant politicians. An executive that has, as a general practice, been given carte blanche to do whatever it wills, including mess around with the constitution under the doctrine of necessity, was beginning to feel the heat as a highly charged judiciary was starting to assert itself, asking awkward questions and demanding to know the answers, and additionally taking errant officials to task. Now the honourable judges have been shown the door for being unnecessarily “meddlesome” in the affairs of the state.

The media, too, has been silenced, for doing essentially what was their job — reporting the truth, that is. Truth hurts the image of the country — this is the general’s recurring refrain. So the media has been ordered not to air or to print anything that brings the top functionaries of the state into disrepute (even if it be the truth?), not to print images of bomb blast victims (even if there are 150 of them?), and not publish any interviews and photographs of terrorists (even if they run amok in the country, brandishing their swords and Kalashnikovs?) — in short, anything that is “negative” by government standards. What the government is, in effect, saying is see no evil, hear no evil — and the evil will go away.

Would the government rather have images of lawyers and journalists being beaten up and apprehended for protesting the violation of their fundamental rights under the Provisional Constitutional Order? For those are the images newspapers are flashing. Meanwhile, in an unprecedented move, all independent TV news channels, including foreign networks, have been banished from the airwaves. In the age of globalisation, of Internet, blogs and emails, it seems absurd to black out news. For eventually, the truth will out.

Why is the media being held culpable and punished for the government’s own sins of omission and commission? The terrorists in Swat and elsewhere in the country are not a figment of the media’s imagination. Neitheris the media responsible for their proliferation. By now, the entire world is familiar with the origins of these terrorist groups and their base of operation. As is the general. Blocking out the news or blocking access to TV channels is not going to make the militants go away. Only a consistent and cogent policy will — and the political will to follow it through.Lathi-charging, tear-gassing and apprehending lawyers, media personnel and members of civil society is not the way of progressive liberals, especially those who profess to introduce real democracy in the country. Itis the style of despots, who are in for the long haul.

For the moment, Pakistan does not appear to be in any stage of transition to democracy. Despotism seems tobe the order of the day.

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