The 21st century development of Pakistan’s media has always been a tale of counter-intuitive contradiction, but its penultimate conclusion has been one that the wider world must now look to as a case study of how political free speech functions when largely unrestricted.
A dictator who embraced free speech
In 1999 General Pervez Musharraf led a military coup against the civilian government before making himself a powerful President whose rule was described as dictatorial by supporters of parliamentary democracy. And yet it was Musharraf who in 2002 ended the state monopoly on Pakistani media which had an immediately transformative effect on the way Pakistanis engaged in politics.
Seemingly overnight, dozens and later scores of new television and radio media outlets sprung up throughout the nation while later, multiple websites followed this same pattern. As current Prime Minister Imran Khan stated in a 2012 interview with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, the new wave of independent media outlets became instantly popular and remain so to this day. Iman Khan accurately compared the popularity of news and analysis programmes on Pakistani media with that of sitcoms in the United States and soap operas in Britain. To this day, political debate and analysis shows remain far more popular in Pakistan than in other nations where light entertainment tends to dominate the ratings.
The lawyers movement
2007 witnessed the beginning of the anti-Musharraf lawyers movement which incidentally was supported by Imran Khan and his PTI party over a decade before they won their historic election and formed a government. Many insist that without the power of the independent media that Musharraf himself unleashed, the movement would not have been successful in ultimately ousting Musharraf and restoring democratic parliamentary politics.
While Musharraf’s policy of following US orders in George W. Bush’s so-called “war on terror” is widely regarding as a disastrous policy which exposed Pakistan’s civilians to more terror attacks than at any time in the country’s history and likewise allowed extremist groups to gain a foothold in Pakistan’s frontierlands, it was ironically, Musharraf’s decision to allow for the flourishing of independent media that helped these criticisms of his rule to air throughout the country.
PTI gives editorial freedom to state media
In an age where US corporate media, European corporate and state media and the Indian government all look to clamp down on free speech, Pakistan remains a place whose levels of political free speech are staggeringly high. Whether on Urdu, English or provincial language media, Pakistanis can say almost anything they want about almost anyone they want and for the most part it is all done in relative peace.
Today, the PTI government of Imran Khan announced a further step to free Pakistan’s already highly open media. While private media outlets have long had editorial freedoms, according to Pakistan’s Information Minister Chaudhary Fawad Hussain, now even state owned media will be given full editorial freedom.
As per vision of @ImranKhanPTI Ended political censorship on PTV, clear instructions issued for a complete editorial independence on PTV and Radio Pakistan, drastic changes ll be visible in Information Dept in coming 3 months Inshallah
— Ch Fawad Hussain (@fawadchaudhry) August 21, 2018
This means that if fully realised, Pakistan’s private and state owned media will be more free to criticise the government than both private and state owned media outlets in many European countries where opposition views are increasingly shunned or derided as “fake”.
Of course, the elephant in the room when discussing Pakistani media is the country’s blasphemy laws. While mercilessly criticising politicians, businessmen or political parties is generally freer in Pakistan than in much of Europe and freer than in many other parts of Asia, speaking about something that could be classed as blasphemy still carries major penalties.
In reality, while an accusation of blasphemy in Pakistan can be a death sentence, the way to reform this is not by engaging in heated debates over whether to repeal such laws but instead to make sure that blasphemy laws are never allowed to be used as political tools against those innocent of the crime. This way, the issue will become less politicised and Pakistani authorities can state that they are enforcing the rule of law while the laws in question reflect the country’s cultural characteristics.
Furthermore, as Donald Trump has stated that he would like to make it a criminal offensive to burn the American flag and as Israeli authorities openly inflict violence members of its own religious Jewish community who refuse to break with Biblical tradition and serve in the military, it is totally unfair to single out Pakistan for a blasphemy law when many other nations have similar traditions.
In terms of political free speech, Pakistan is among the freest in the world. While it is fair to criticise such media outlets as being too free and thus allowing the spread of facts as well as fiction disguised as fact in almost equal measure, if a developing nation seeks to foster the intellectual growth of its society and strengthen its democracy, it must take the virtues of free speech along with the perceived vices.
As a nation whose free political media are only 14 years old, the country has made remarkable progress especially compared with nations whose free or once free media continue to succumb to more and more forms of both overt and stealth censorship. By no means is Pakistan’s media environment perfect, but a recent move by the PTI government to give full editorial freedom to state media demonstrates an atmosphere of good will, tolerance to opposition and a respect for the wishes of a people who have enjoyed their freedom to speak on privately owned media and will now receive the same privilege through their interactions with state owned media.
At a time when the lights of free speech are dimming in the west and are under attack in neighbouring India, Pakistan is making all the right moves in all the right directions to ensure a freer and fairer political debate for future generations of Pakistanis.