So much media yet so little media

BY NUPUR BASU| IN Media Freedom | 25/07/2018
The media has been assaulted and curbed in the run up to today’s election in Pakistan.
NUPUR BASU reports
Geo TV broadcasts Maryam Sharif's tweet


An audio message from  former PM Nawaz Sharif in jail was released hours before campaigning for Pakistan’s election ended on July 24 . His deep set voice was heard appealing in chaste Urdu to his supporters and voters in Pakistan: “My daughter Maryam and I are in jail to defend your vote – give us such a verdict that it will wash away those elements who want to make a graveyard of justice in our country ! Vote ko izzat do (give respect to people’s vote)”.

Imran Khan, the cricketer turned politician who is hoping to win this election for his Pakistan Tehrik e Insaaf (PTI) is being seen as a candidate supported by the military though Khan has denied it vehemently . His ex- wife, Rehan Khan, in a series of interviews on Wion channel, has been very critical of her former husband, saying he has been fuelling a hate campaign against the country’s media and leading the youth towards supporting the dangerous blasphemy act.  “I wish Imran had played a more responsible role in his capacity as a leading candidate” she said. 

Her view is vindicated by anyone who has watched Imran Khan’s public rallies – like the military establishment in Pakistan, he too has thundered from the podium against both the country’s media and the western media dubbing them both biased in favour of Nawaz Sharif.

The military authorities had ensured that there was a media blackout during the arrival of Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Sharif in Lahore from London on July 13 after being sentenced to 10 and seven years respectively in prison, over allegations of disproportionate wealth as revealed in the Panama papers. Internet and telecommunication links were also snapped at that time. This blackout on Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) leaders was widely critiqued in the media. 

Jailing the father and daughter duo and blanking out the media glare from them may have been counterproductive critics point out.

“Since then there has not been even a single picture of Maryam in the jail where she is housed in solitary confinement – and the absence of such a photograph is leading to more gossip and speculation and creating a sympathy wave for her and her father.” Rehan said.

Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) says the intimidation of journalists has peaked during these elections.  It  condemned the targeting of the media terming it as “flagrant press freedom violations” and urged the authorities to let the media cover the elections with complete freedom.

“Kadafi Zaman, a Norwegian journalist who was covering demonstrations in Gujarat in support of Sharif’s party, the PML-N, for the television channel TV2, was badly beaten by police on 13 July and was arrested on charges of attempted murder and disrupting public order, although he had showed his press card to the police. He was finally released on bail a few days later.

 Zaibdar Marri, a correspondent for TV Express News and president of the local press club, has been missing since 13 July in Kohlu, in the southwestern province of Balochistan. Witnesses say he was kidnapped by unidentified men while covering the election campaign of a local politician whose candidacy is not supported by the military, which is accused of trying to rig the election in favour of Imran Khan’s PTI party” an RSF release said.

Pakistan which is ranked 139 out of 180 countries in the RSF 2018 World Press Freedom is set to slide further if its record of curbs on the media in the run up to the country’s election on July 25 is anything to go by.

The curbs started as early as April this year when one of the leading private channels in Pakistan - Geo TV- was shut down for a few weeks, only to return with several curbs placed on it. There was also the move to hinder circulation of Pakistan’s most respected liberal English newspaper Dawn, and attempts were made to censor it. Its television arm Dawn TV was also targeted by the administration. The Dawn CEO Hameed Haroon had said in a television interview that this was the military’s last ditch move to curb the strong voices in the media and that they could never succeed in their attempt.

 But this did not deter the military from going about its intimidation of journalists both in the print and television media.

 Well-respected commentators like Gul Bukhari were picked up, sending out the message that none who critique the army will be spared.

 The idea was to spread the big chill so all dissenting voices would be curbed.

It said it had been  an arduous and aggressive election campaign that was “particularly trying for journalists, who have been the targets of arrests and a great deal of violence.”  RSF and its Pakistani partner, Freedom Network (FN) wrote to the interim government in June to voice concern about the many abuses targeting journalists and media, including the blocking of the newspaper Dawn’s distribution, abductions, break-ins and acts of violence.

 “With just days to go to the elections, we have seen an increase in censorship of the media and an increase in violence against journalists who have dared to cover the election campaign in its entirety,” RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk said.

With 46 million of the total 90 million voters under the age group of 35, social media is playing a big role in this election in Pakistan. All political parties are trying to influence the17 million first time voters. No wonder that curbs on that sector too have been severe.

On Monday (June 23) the army spokesperson announced at a press conference that the military was monitoring social media for “anti-state, anti-Pakistan and anti-army” material. He displayed a diagram of Twitter accounts, which included prominent journalists, that were suspected of being manipulated by “enemy designs”. (Read India). 

Journalist Jon Boone asked in The Guardian why Britain was keeping quiet about Pakistan’s assault on free speech. He reported that  online activists who disagree with the army’s view of the world have been kidnapped, tortured and accused falsely of blasphemy. Websites have been blocked, including Safe Newsrooms, a project to publicise media repression that was only launched two months ago. Its founder, the outspoken journalist Taha Siddiqui, fled the country after a botched kidnap attempt by military intelligence agents, his story said.

Minutes before the campaigning ended Dawn newspaper reported the following tweet from Maryam’s twitter handle that sent twitterati in Pakistan in a frenzy. It was her first since she was jailed after landing on July 13. This is what the Dawn reported :

“Ms Maryam sent the public into a frenzy after a tweet was posted from her official Twitter account on Saturday while she is in the jail.

The message — issued from the leader’s official handle @MaryamNSharif — read a couplet by revolutionary Urdu poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

“Jis dhaj se koi maqtal mein gaya/ Woh shaan salamat rehti hai/ Yeh jaan to ani jani hai/Is jaan ki koi baat nahi/ Yeh baazi ishq ki baazi hai/ Jo chaho lagaa do dar kaisa/ Gar jeet gaye to kya kehna/Haare bhi to baazi maat nahi (The grandeur with which someone goes to the gallows is remembered for a long time after/This life is fleeting/ If it is a contest of devotion/ then don’t fear and give it everything/ It’ll be great if you win/ but the battle is not lost even if you lose),” read the tweet typed in Urdu.

The couplet was posted using the hashtag #VoteKoIzzatDo (respect the vote), a slogan former premier Sharif has based his election campaign on before he was arrested a week ago. The tweet received over five thousand retweets within a few hours.”

In 1999 post the Kargil conflict when Musharraf had staged a coup on Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan, all his army had done was seal the gates of the state owned Pakistan Television (PTV).There was then just one TV channel in Pakistan, the  state owned PTV, and shutting down that was a child’s plan for a military dictator.

A documentary I made in 2000 titled “Michael Jackson Comes to Manikganj” on the impact of satellite television in South Asia, had shot of the PTV anchor who was reading the news simply being cut off mid air and Musharaff’s takeover address airing on the state’s mouthpiece channel. It was an iconic moment that showed how television in Pakistan was blanked out in a second during the coup.

 Today despite hundreds of channels,  the military establishment has managed to do exactly the same through a different strategy of threats, intimidation, arrests, abductions and most importantly- censorship.

And its curbing of media at election time is set to become a case study in the history of Pakistan’s media.


(Nupur Basu is a journalist and documentary filmmaker who has directed among several documentries– Michael Jackson Comes to Manikganj in 2000.)



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