By Najam Sethi
23 May 2014
The onslaught of the military establishment on GEO for over-stepping the red line by airing Hamid Mir’s allegation against the DG ISI is continuing. Cable operators have succumbed to pressure to blackout GEO in many parts of the country. Pro-establishment religious, political and non-state groups are hounding GEO. Advertising clients and ad agencies are being arm-twisted to pull out. The government is caught in the cross fire, damned for repressing media rights and press freedom if it helps the military establishment and damned for not protecting the sacred cows if it shows some leniency towards GEO. Worst of all, the conflict has served to bitterly divide the media, provoked sectarian passions and dragged the courts into the fray. Three developments are particularly disturbing.
The first is the entry of the PTI against GEO. Imran Khan has alleged an unholy nexus between the PMLN and GEO in “stealing” the last elections from him. He has offered no evidence, nor can he explain how and why GEO and its anchors were not so long ago his favourites and why they have overnight become his most hated enemies. A reasonable explanation is that he has decided to peg his mid-term-elections strategy by targeting both GEO and the PMLN simultaneously while endearing himself to the all-powerful military establishment.
The second is the media wars that have erupted across the channels and newspapers. A few rich businessmen with media interests have joined hands to ruthlessly attack the GEO/JANG Group. Their primary purpose is commercial. GEO accounts for over 50% of all non-terrestrial eyeballs and therefore takes half of the pie. But three significant and disquieting facts about their attack on GEO stand out. First, these media groups are “upstarts” or relatively new entrants. They are owned by businessmen who made their fortunes in trade and industry and then decided to buy stakes in the media in order to protect and promote them, unlike most of the other media that has risen from the print ranks and not ventured into big non-business projects. Second, these groups have recklessly provoked religious passions against GEO and incited violence. Third, they have compelled or lured working journalists in their ranks to abandon media ethics and codes of professional conduct and take part in the witch hunt against the GEO/JANG Group.
The third development is relentless pressure on a democratically elected government by the military establishment, PTI, religious non-state actors and these media groups to take their side and squeeze out GEO. The most obvious manifestation of this is in the struggle to seize control of PEMRA and wield it to scuttle GEO.
Meanwhile, the public remains critical of GEO for targeting the DG ISI and believes that it should be censured appropriately. But it is resolutely of the opinion that under no circumstances should GEO be banned or closed down. Much the same sort of sentiment is expressed by a dying breed of independent journalists which also wants a resolution of this conflict to yield enforceable codes of ethics and media professionalism to be embedded in any proposed solution. Their argument is that neither media owners nor government nor the military establishment should be in a position to singly or jointly dictate terms to journalists that undermine or erode their professionalism. Instead, PEMRA should be transformed into a truly transparent, strong, representative and independent regulatory mechanism to oversee media practices that impinge on matters of freedom, responsibility and national security.
Of course, this is easier said than done. The military is still in a prickly and unforgiving mood. The media barons are still going hammer and tongs after GEO. Imran Khan is still foaming at the mouth. Journalists are still at each other’s throats. PEMRA is still controversial and convulsed with epileptic fits. And the government is still unable to come to grips with the situation and find a middle way out.
The issue of how to devise a proper mechanism to regulate the media remains at the heart of the problem. In the past when there was no electronic media and no upstart barons, bodies such as the CPNE and APNS were able to tackle problems haphazardly and informally both among themselves and between them and the ruling government. The military was rarely involved in such disputes because it was treated as a sacred national security cow. But the advent of satellite TV, cross ownership, internet, social media and new media barons has changed old equations and equilibriums. This is a different age too with passionate popular urges for democracy, accountability and radical “change” in line with similar sentiments across the Muslim world. The lawyers’ movement, the restoration of the independent judiciary with its focus on “missing persons” and fundamental rights, the rise of the PTI, and the demand for a neutral election commission and transitional caretaker governments are all testaments to this trend.
Hopefully, after the heat and dust of battle has settled, we shall move to address these issues appropriately.