"Governments have to work with an open mind and listen to criticism. They don’t have to agree with everything, but criticism is an essential part of building a democratic society"
AURORA: Why is the media opposing the government’s intent to create the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PDMA)?
ZAFFAR ABBAS: The government has repeatedly stated that it wants a single media authority to handle the entire media, but to this day, it has not officially shared the draft of that bill and this has made everyone suspicious. The reports that are circulating are all based on a draft that was leaked by the Ministry of Information. Ever since, the Parliamentary Committee for Media has asked the Minister of Information to share the draft. The media owners have asked to see it, so have the editors and the journalists unions, but it has still not been shared. All we have been given are talking points. So, until such time as the government shares the draft, we will rely on the draft that was leaked – and it is a ridiculous piece of paper. The reason I am saying this is because newspapers do not require a regulatory body. There are laws in this country; defamation laws and other laws that can handle anything that is printed and deemed objectionable in a newspaper. This is how the system works all over the world – not through a regulatory body, where there is talk about reviewing the performance of a newspaper, issuing and renewing licences, imposing fees and even jail terms. Nowhere in the world is there a law that puts the print media, the electronic media and the online media under a single regulatory umbrella organisation. This is a very bad move. It is a move to control newspapers and other media and give the government the authority to shut down any media outlet on any excuse and this is why, despite their differences, all the media bodies have joined hands – which is a very rare occurrence – to collectively reject this proposal. It is totally unacceptable and we fail to understand its purpose. The only purpose I can make out is that over the last few years, a thought process has emerged within the government and the security establishment circles about the need to minimise criticism and promote a single narrative in this country – and that anything short of this particular narrative is unpatriotic and contrary to the national interest.
A: Do you think the government will succeed in making this bill law?
ZA: My gut feeling is that because of the kind of pressure we have managed to generate, it will be very difficult for the government to pass this into law in its present form. What other form or shape it takes, we don’t know; but almost certainly not in the way it has currently been drafted.
A: The government must have anticipated the pushback from the media, so why not even attempt to have a consultation with the stakeholders?
ZA: When you want to bring in a law to control the media, you are not going to engage with the stakeholders, and this is what the government is trying to do, or at least the Minister of Information is trying to do. He is not willing to share or discuss the draft. Under these circumstances, we will continue to go by the draft that was leaked, until he comes up with an alternative draft. Then, if there are some points worth considering, there can be a discussion about a law – but certainly not about a regulatory body. TV already has a regulatory body in PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) and some can even argue that it crosses the line when using its authority. There is, however, no law governing social media. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has its own rules and regulations and they try to govern and dictate through it. Everyone is open to discussing social media. We know how social media is being misused by various outlets, but to use a law to shut down a YouTube channel or a Facebook account just because someone is not happy with the content is dangerous. The government seems to think everyone is out of control and everyone needs to be reined in, which is why they want a central body to control the entire media in Pakistan. This is not how the system works.
A: The benchmark, so to speak, regarding controlling the press, is still attributed to the Zia years. Do you think Pakistan is better off in this respect in 2021?
ZA: There have been improvements in many areas. The media in Pakistan has become huge compared to the days when General Ziaul Haq was in power. The history of the struggle for press freedom in Pakistan dates back to President Ayub Khan and even before him. Under Ayub Khan, a draconian law was brought in, in the form of the Press and Publication Ordinance. Things were worse under General Zia because there was direct censorship, but we cannot compare his government with the present or recent governments; his was a military government and no one expects a military government to allow criticism. A military ruler with absolutely no support from the people will never allow criticism. However, when a government comes into power with the vote of the people and then tries to introduce the same sort of laws or controls, one is forced to ask whether there is anything democratic about such a government. If I were to make any comparison with the Zia days, I would say that a media outlet today can publish or run whatever it chooses to, but there is no guarantee it will survive for long. The reality is that the government, even without the authority implied in the proposed bill, is attempting to control the media. If they are displeased with a television channel, the cable operators are put under pressure to move the channel frequency assignment from three to 103. Another way is by curtailing or cutting off the quantum of government advertising released to the print media – a tool which, by the way, has been used by successive governments. I would say, it is a question of the extent to which press freedom exists in Pakistan and to what extent a media platform is willing to take on the government or the security establishment – and some newspapers and TV channels have been punished for doing just that. When the security establishment was displeased with what came to be known as ‘Dawn Leaks’, Dawn’s distribution was blocked across large parts of the country, and because this went on for such a long time, it began to adversely affect the paper – it is another matter that we never compromised despite this. The point is that they have the capacity to do this. On paper, the media seems relatively free, but in reality, it is being controlled to the extent that almost every newspaper or television channel is compelled to exercise self-censorship.
A: You talked about the government wanting to promote a single narrative. Do nations function better on a single narrative or is this notion unique to Pakistan?
ZA: Almost every country has multiple narratives. To be fair, attempting to control or promote a single narrative is not confined to Pakistan. Look at how the BJP Government is pushing its narrative in India. Turkey, Hungary, Bangladesh are also trying to push this idea of a single narrative. It emanates from what can be vaguely defined as ultra-nationalism; that in order to promote nationalism, we should all speak with one voice. It starts with larger issues relating to foreign and defence policy and then trickles down to every aspect of the country. If you question the way the economy is run, what is being done in the tribal areas in terms of development, or what is happening in Balochistan – you are regarded as anti-national or unpatriotic. What the state doesn’t realise is that the idea of a single narrative is counterproductive. What is the role of the media? If a government is doing good things for the country, that is what it is supposed to do. The role of the media and civil society is to highlight the areas where a government has faltered, where it has not fulfilled the promises made in its manifesto. If the media is not allowed to raise these issues because they are considered against the national interest, who is left to tell governments that this is not the way to handle a situation? Governments have to work with an open mind and listen to criticism. They don’t have to agree with everything, but criticism is an essential part of building a democratic society.
A: This year the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Maria Ressa, CEO of Rappler and Dmitry Muratov, Editor-in-Chief of Novaya Gazeta – two journalists who are not part of the mainstream media. What is your reaction?
ZA: I think it is amazing. The Nobel Committee has recognised media as a pillar of the worldwide peace movement – and then to select two media outlets from as far away as the Philippines and Russia and give the Peace Prize to two individuals who have been struggling for a long time for freedom of the press in their respective countries; this sends a very strong message to authoritarian regimes and other rulers aspiring to become authoritarian that this is totally unacceptable. This decision will go a long way in recognising that the struggle for the freedom of the press is very much a part of the global peace movement. I am so pleased about it.
A: The last three years have been hard on the media in general in Pakistan. Apart from the pandemic, there has been an economic crunch and therefore less advertising revenue coming in; then there is the fact that younger people are moving to the digital space for their information. How do you see this playing out?
ZA: It has certainly been tough for newspapers. The trend started when the Musharraf government decided to give dozens of licences to private television channels in Pakistan without realising what the size of the pie was, and as feared, the bulk of the advertising moved first to television and later to social media, mainly because in a semi-literate society, advertisers, especially consumer product advertisers, look to platforms where they can reach large sections of the population. Although the last few years have been particularly tough for newspapers, they continue to remain very relevant in this country. Dawn’s website has millions of pageviews every month and 60 to 70% of the content is taken from the newspaper. We generate the news and use the platform to keep a large section of the population (who do not buy the physical newspaper) informed. The relevance of newspapers in Pakistan will continue for a long time. But yes, things are bound to change and newspapers will have to reinvent themselves, although in my opinion, the effort should be to keep the newspapers going, because they are a very essential part of our society.
A: To what extent has ‘fake news’ affected the credibility of serious journalism?
ZA: In Pakistan, the proliferation of political talk shows has turned millions of people sitting in their living rooms into political analysts who tend to look at news stories with a degree of cynicism, and often describe them as fake news, although in many cases they have not actually read the story. Whenever we publish a good story, we get a huge positive response and an equally huge response from social media trolls attacking the story and using foul language. This kind of culture is building up in this country – and there is a conscious effort to create this kind of culture. In this scenario, everything becomes doubtful and distinguishing between genuine reporting and fake propaganda becomes more and more difficult. These trolls are doing a huge disservice to society by confusing people in this country about what is genuine information and what is not.
A: Is enough being done to develop a new generation of journalists in Pakistan?
ZA: We need high-quality training institutions, but the real learning takes place on the job. It is the responsibility of the media houses to provide in-house training, although this is not happening.
A: Why not?
ZA: Resources mainly. Yet, unless such programmes are instituted, be they internships or in-house training, we will end up with mediocrity – and not because of any lack of aptitude. It is the responsibility of the media houses and their owners to invest in, and provide, this training. The good thing is that 30 years ago, only Karachi University offered a degree in mass communications. Today, so many universities are doing an excellent job churning graduates from their mass communication departments. However, it is largely theory; the practical side comes by joining a newspaper.
A: As Editor, Dawn, how do you see your product?
ZA: There are shortcomings in my product, largely due to a lack of resources. Having said that, I still try to provide information that is authentic and opinions and editorials that are informed. It is often said that young people do not bother reading editorials, but if you go to our website, you will see how many of them actually read them. We have developed a large readership interested in matters that are serious in nature and who understand the importance of having an informed opinion. Where we are lacking, due to financial constraints, is the ability to carry out investigative reports and expose major scams and crimes, but to do this we need a pool of investigative reporters. I cannot let a reporter spend two weeks on an investigative story, because I need a story from him or her every day. We also need more original journalism; whether it is about a social issue or something lighter. If we simply keep repeating yesterday’s news, readers will abandon us eventually.
Zaffar Abbas was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig. For feedback: email@example.com