It has been one long, bitter fight. And it continues. In the very first decade of our independence, the harshest of colonial press laws were employed to suppress us. Since the second decade until up to the late 1980s we were silenced using what was known as the Press and Publication Ordinance.
Under this infamous law, if a minion wielding even the minimum amount of official power did not like the colour of your jacket he could ban your newspaper, confiscate your printing press and throw you in jail. There would be no recourse to law. More than half the country’s newspapers had been taken over by the government during this period and were being run by what was called the National Press Trust. These newspapers supported the government of the day’s policies and actions without question and branded those that raised intrusive questions as traitors. The PTV also played a similar role.
In-between, that is during General Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship we were subjected to the worst kind of censorship. One of General Zia’s laws said what you published — even if it were true and in the national interest — made you liable to be arrested and sent to jail. In the beginning of his diabolic term, the General had filled the jails with protesting journalists. He even had some of us subjected to public lashing.
It was not until the 1990s and that too during the two short-lived stints of Benazir Bhutto that journalists were able to speak with any degree of freedom.
Indeed, when then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan dismissed the first Benazir government accusing it of indulging in corruption, all he had by way of evidence was some Dawn reports. In fact, after the reference was filed in the Supreme Court (SC), a couple of intelligence operators visited Dawn’s Islamabad offices asking us if we could help them with more ‘stuff’ that had not been published yet. Similar tactics were used when Ghulam Ishaq Khan acted against Nawaz Sharif.
By the time General Musharraf arrived on the scene, our relentless struggle for Press freedom had blunted all the existing official instruments of oppression and suppression. In this struggle the role of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) was decidedly crucial. Even General Zia’s attempt to divide the Union on ideological lines could not slow down the struggle.
Musharraf, meanwhile had committed his Kargil misadventure but blamed his defeat on the propaganda that blared round-the-clock throughout the ‘war’ from India’s private broadcast media. This misreading of his Kargil debacle misled him into believing that private broadcast media would serve his dictatorial rule better than the captive official media. So, on his orders his information minister, Sheikh Rashid — a man who was not literate enough to understand the intricacies of the public service aspect of media business — went on a spree issuing licenses left and right. At the same time, he did away with the cross-media ownership law. The side-effects of this policy were devastating. But that is a different story requiring a separate discussion.
When the chips were down for him in 2007 as the lawyers’ movement peaked, Musharraf came down heavily on the very private broadcast media that he had allowed to be set up so earnestly.
In the period since the 2008 elections, both the print and broadcast media have enjoyed unprecedented freedom to report critically on the performance of elected governments. The major focus of the media during this period has remained corruption and lack of good governance. We were free to cast the governments of the day as security risks and bad-mouth all past governments and even the Army chiefs who retired in the recent past — including Musharraf, Kiyani and Raheel Sharif. We also enjoyed reporting on various scandals such as those related to the persons of Ayyan Ali, Dr Asim, Uzair Baloch, Imran’s marriages and Zardari’s presumed philandering.
We have also reported freely how (President) Zardari had ‘clandestinely’ tried to tame the ISI; how he almost gave up our first use nuclear option to presumably facilitate India to take liberties with our security and his alleged involvement in the so-called Memogate controversy. Following the 2013 elections we were free to report on how Nawaz Sharif was all set to give up Kashmir to India in return for some vague business deal; how he and his brother Shahbaz were allegedly syphoning off precious resources from the government coffers both at the centre and in Punjab in the name of mega physical infrastructure projects. Alleged corruption cases indulged in by the KP government ruled by Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) were also freely reported. There are many more such stories which we reported with no holds barred, and are still being reported but the list is too long to cover in this space.