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Is Media Hostage or Free: The changing roles of media under modern imperialism and neoliberism

On 27th May 2018, Overseas Progressive Pakistanis (OPP) organised an event titled “Is media free or a hostage: Changing role of media under modern imperialism and neo-liberalism”. Hamid Mir , a renowned journalist and tv anchor came from Pakistan, and Dr Farooq Sulehria, an academic associated with School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London and author of “Media imperialism in India and Pakistan” participated as panelists in the event.


After an introduction of the organisation OPP, the background to the topic was presented, setting modern imperialism and neo-liberalism in a global context in general and Pakistan in particular, linking it with the phenomenon of rapid economic, political and technological transformations that have had consequences for media freedom. For Pakistan, the evolution from journalism led media houses to business led enterprises was presented as one of the factors determining the space available to media to operate independently. State being the single largest advertiser, and the use of a carrot and stick policy to control media, being some of the other influencers. The importance of freedom of media can be gauged from the high value with which it is regarded by people as revealed by a Gallup survey, while perceived to be declining at the same time as is also evidenced by the country index generated by Reporters Sans Frontiers.


Following this, the panelists were invited to share their views on the topic. Dr Sulehria, describing the contents of his presentation as militarization of media, spoke extensively about the manipulative tactics employed by the military in the age of multiple private tv channels to keep itself relevant to the society. He gave examples from all across Pakistan to illustrate the coercive tactics employed by the military to silence critical voices which voiced opinions contrary to state propagated narratives. TAlking about the growth of private tv channels since 2001, he  maintained that the military itself created this infrastructure of liberalisation, partly to counter the onslaught of Indian tv channels, and also to use as a tool for the propagation of a national security, right wing discourse, for which it has allocated lots of resources, both human and financial. There are channels now that are perceived as frontmen of ISI. But more subtle tactics are also employed, to emphasise which Dr Sulehria showed how after the Osama Bin Laden raid, the percentage of headlines on military failure was less than 10% in major newspapers. He also maintained that since media will always be a potent propaganda tool, full freedom of media cannot be guaranteed in any type of political/economic dispensation.


Hamid Mir, in his talk , maintained that media freedom in Pakistan is threatened by all influential stakeholders, including politicians, clergy and the military. He disagreed with the view that military liberalised media during the time of Musharraf, citing how the first private radio channel license was issued in 1994 by the then civilian government. Also the fact that the transmission centers of both Geo and ARY were located outside Pakistan throughout Musharraf’s tenure proves that media felt insecure during military rule. He emphasised that media cannot make compromises between truth and falsehood, between democracy and dictatorship and while it should stay objective, it cannot be neutral. He maintained that media freedom is under threat everywhere in weak as well as strong democracies. Talking about Pakistan, he said that Islamabad is considered the worst place for journalists with regards to incidents of harrasment and intimidation, but it is indeed Balochistan which is much worse since media is almost non existent over there.


Coming back to his point about politicians being equally complicit, he said that parliament should be giving strength to media but it refuses to take a stand, and then the same politicians complain to journalists when media is intimidated into self censorship in the absence of protective laws that the parliament is repeatedly asked to legislate on. He mentioned how action is pending on a proposed “Journalist Protection Bill” with a suggested clause on making all agencies responsible answerable to Parliament. In the last 3-4 years, in addition to physical attacks on journalists, a new tool of blasphemy allegations is being used to harrass media personnel, through fake news which he termed the greatest threat to media freedom. He ended his talk with a qoute from Jinnah, “Nation and the press fall together”.


After a short break, the audience asked the panelists questions regarding media freedom and about events of of socio-political nature in Pakistan. On a more general question about state of media freedom in the Indo-Pak region, Dr Sulehria said that media freedom represents general democratisation of society. Hamid Mir referred to article 19 of the constitution, which while being a “freedom of media” article, mentions atleast seven conditions to full freedom making it sound more like a “media restriction” article. He mentioned that journalists have been trying to mobilise support within the parliament to address the anomalies of this article. On a question about foreign journalists operating in Pakistan, Hamid Mir said that they face multi dimensional pressures in Pakistan with many having been expelled from the country. Hamid Mir was questioned about the role of media in “humanising” known terrorists like Ehsanullah Ehsan through interviews, to which he asserted that media should not provide an opportunity to terrorists to prove their innocence, but instead confront them with hard hitting questions. Mir reiterated that civilian as well as military establishment were responsible for the culture of intimidation and harrassment that the media operates in, in Pakistan.


To more specific questions about events happening in Pakistan currently, Hamid Mir condemned the recent attack on an Ahmedi mosque in Pakistan saying that they are citizens of the country with equal rights and their right to practice their religion is enshrined in the constitution. Talking about the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, he requested its proponents to not make the broader issue of missing persons specific to the Pashtun ethnicity since there have been movements since 2006 protesting in support of missing people. On Asia bibi’s case, a christian woman convicted of blasphemy, Hamid Mir was of the opinion that instead of the case following the regular legal procedure, the constitutional head of government in the province became a party to the case while it was sub judice, which hampered the legal effort.

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