Wheat from the Chaff

Jawaid IqbalFreedom of the media drew a big question mark when it became evident that Arshad Sharif, a Pakistani media person who worked for the ARY TV channel, had been killed in Kenya. It is still not clear who killed him and why? What were the circumstances that drove him out of Pakistan, first to Dubai and then to Kenya? Somehow, the ARY staffer, whose main forte was investigative journalism, met his end in a shroud of mystery away from his homeland. Arshad Sharif had found himself being hounded by many quarters for having exposed their misdeeds in the media. Many of his professional colleagues are still persecuted and have often found themselves being threatened with dire consequences. The result is that they have fled Pakistan to save their lives.

All this is happening in a country that calls itself a democracy and claims that the media is a free component of its democratic setup. The fact is that media in Pakistan has slid many notches down the scale in terms of freedom over the recent past. The present era is one of the worst periods that Pakistani media have had to face ever since the country became independent 75 years ago.

General Musharraf’s tenure was relatively the best. The media was really free and journalists could write or say wherever they wished, without, of course, challenging the basic tenets of Islam, compromising national integrity or violating norms of decency. It was during the military ruler’s time that Pakistani media was liberated in real terms, whereas the expectation was that, as military rulers usually do, all over the world, he would come down hard on the media and direct policy according to his own whims. He did none of that and this was quite surprising. He issued radio and TV broadcast licences to whoever applied and had no qualms in giving out cross-licences, despite the advice of his close associates. It did not matter to him if a print media organization applied for a TV licence or vice versa. All he wanted was the media sector to expand and for that purpose, all applicants were welcome so long as they met the requirements.

It is now observed in hindsight that General Musharraf’s media policy was over-generous in many ways. To begin with, it was over-liberal and many media houses that should have been beholden to him for the freedom he gave turned the policy around to target the general himself. In fact, these very media houses and the journalists who worked for them formed a wall of resistance against General Musharraf and not only worked for his ouster but also for a case of treason against him as he subjected the country to a state of Emergency. The other reason that has been felt gradually over the years after General Musharraf left is that he brought about his liberal policies too soon and this created an amateur, unseasoned and self-seeking class of media owners and practitioners who exploited their new-found freedom for unscrupulous purposes to serve their own ends.

Perhaps the present clampdown on media is to guard against such eventualities. An environment of freedom of expression has already been created and honest and hard-working journalists are taking full advantage of it. However, it is also true that people like Arshad Sharif and others like him are being punished for their integrity. It needs to be emphasized such hard-won freedoms must not be allowed to be hijacked by mere exploiters and the powers that be must act as a sieve to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Syed Jawaid Iqbal
President & Editor in Chief