When leaders are powerful and charismatic, it is difficult to report on them objectively. Their supporters are emotional and often do not accept reports that could serve as correctives in a democracy. Much-loved leaders often appeal to hidden national intolerance and so, are not impartially assessed.
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) is “censoring” TV comment during debates. This censoring is carried out in many ways including phone calls to cable operators in the private sector. Channels can be suddenly switched off and critics can be silenced through mysterious warnings and threats that can force commentators to leave the country. People who come on TV with forceful critiques disappear mysteriously, only to be released a few days later after they have sworn to keep mum. When nationalism is on the upswing — especially when the state is expected to go to war — the media is reduced to banal agitprop.
India is no different. Raksha Kumar, in Foreign Policy (August 2), gives us a tour d’horizon: “For much of Modi’s first five years in office, his government seemed to get a free pass from the country’s pliant media. In November 2016, when Modi abruptly recalled 86 per cent of the country’s currency — to fight corruption, he said at the time — many influential media outlets failed to ask crucial questions. By initially lauding what most economists called a damaging move and by buying the government line, journalists helped spread the incorrect perception that phony economics could fix big problems. In the end, India’s growth rate dropped for several quarters.”
“In February, Indian military pilots struck the Pakistani town of Balakot in response to a suicide attack on its soldiers. India’s media was awash in jingoistic sentiments, unquestioningly publishing in print and broadcasting on TV the government line that New Delhi had killed a ‘very large number’ of militants from the Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist group. Days later, Reuters and some other international media challenged the government line with satellite imagery as evidence; but the damage, once again, was done, as most Indians had already been sold New Delhi’s version of events,” Kumar continues.
Pluralism is at risk in South Asia from populism. Prime Minister Hasina Wajed of Bangladesh has a three-fourths majority in the country’s Parliament and the media is too scared to speak the truth and risk being roughed up by Awami League supporters. In the run-up to the 2018 election, the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) suffered mass arrests on trumped-up charges. Mysteriously, more than 40 candidates of the Opposition alliance left the electoral race while the vote was being cast. Daily Star’s editor is said to have been asked to pay about $8 billion to satisfy the “defamed” citizens. The “mob” is always there to do the needful if an erring journalist doesn’t “let go”.
Media was controlled under the military rule of Generals Ziaur Rehman and H M Ershad. Khaleda Zia and Hasina Wajed acted in a similar manner, one leaning on the power of the military and the other on the charisma of the founder of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Reporters Without Borders ranks Bangladesh 146th out of 180 in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index. Thirty-two journalists revealed to Reuters that “the recent strengthening of defamation laws with a new Digital Security Act has spread a climate of fear in the industry.”
When the police gets to you in Bangladesh, they do so under legislation that Bangladeshi journalists don’t like. In Pakistan, it’s different because you don’t know who is threatening you, and if you get a drubbing you are not supposed to reveal your assailant. Such things have happened to journalists, bloggers — they get a rough deal in Bangladesh too — university teachers and even women reporters.
In Pakistan, the personal appeal of Imran Khan is the most powerful phenomenon faced by the media. Modi is powerful in India and Imran Khan is powerful in Pakistan. This doesn’t bode well for the future of South Asia. Not being criticised is no merit as it deprives the common citizen of an objective mechanism of judging the elected leader. As both sides suffer from the same measure of inflexibility it clearly points the way to war.
The writer is consulting editor, Newsweek Pakistan