The Azadi march will be a litmus test for Pakistan’s media
While Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) is still finalizing its mode and the magnitude of its participation in the upcoming ‘Azadi March,’ due to begin on Oct. 27, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has announced that it will be a part of the rally, but not the sit-in.
The country’s remaining opposition parties are extending symbolic support but the extent of their participation is still uncertain. What is certain is that Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) is all charged up and will be leading from the front with two main objectives: the ousting of the Pakistan Tehreek-e- Insaf (PTI) government and calling for fresh general elections in the country.
The basis of the Azadi March, according to the opposition, is the failure of the PTI government to deliver on the economic front. The government has been unable to control the increasing inflation, unemployment and the uncertainty prevailing in the market, which has brought negative growth in many sectors. GDP growth has plummeted, traders and the SME sector is hardly making ends meet. A question mark looms on the PTI’s electoral victory in the 2018 elections and failure to gain international support on the Kashmir issue are the reasons being quoted for the protest movement.
But for any sit-in or protest march to be successful, there are certain vital ingredients, foremost being media coverage of the events.
An organic effort by the opposition will not stand much of a chance if the movement does not get coverage in the media.
Ihsan Afzal Khan
Between 2013-2018, the media was much more free to show the opposition’s activities, and censorship with regards to the opposition was minimal. The PTI’s sit-in in 2014, on most occasions, had a few hundred people, but it was still being broadcast live to over 200 million Pakistanis 24 hours a day and 7 days a week.
Within a year, Pakistan has dropped down 3 points to 142 on the World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters without Borders in 2019. The government is the largest advertisement revenue generator for television news channels and this is a major tool being used to employ undeclared state censorship.
The government uses many methods to reduce viewership and readership for channels and newspapers who try to report freely. Channels have been taken down during the interviews of opposition leaders and the government is openly stating that the media is not allowed to show coverage of politicians who have been convicted or are on trial. In Pakistan today, almost all of the opposition is on trial.
In this scenario, where media is considered the fourth pillar of the state and the opposition is gearing up to begin a movement, the role the media plays in its reporting could be a definitive moment for the freedom of expression in the country.
Coverage of the protest march will be a real test for many anchors and channels who claim they are neutral reporters of news. Channel owners will have to see beyond their rivalries and competition, if they believe they have a role in strengthening democracy in Pakistan.
Rehman’s press conference held last Saturday was not shown on most television channels. But democracy can only be strengthened if all stakeholders participate in playing their due role.
An organic effort by the opposition will not stand much of a chance if the movement does not get coverage in the media. There is also the danger, of the potential use of force or aggression by the government towards peaceful protestors, occurring with impunity in a media blackout.
On many occasions, Prime Minister Imran Khan has announced that he is willing to go as far as providing food and containers for the opposition parties, if ever they should wish to come out to the streets for a sit-in. Instead, Khan should simply let the media do its job and report coming events freely. As for the media, this will be a litmus test of its integrity, with hundreds of millions of Pakistanis watching.
– The writer is a member of PML-N