According to an ignored piece of news, Nia Zamana, a monthly current affairs magazine dedicated to promote liberal, enlightened and secular values in Pakistan, has been closed down. The reason behind its closure lies in an allegation of blasphemy against its editor Shoaib Adil. Even a formal case has not been registered against him yet, but the application itself carries such a grave risk that he had to abandon everything and go in hiding for his life. The allegation of blasphemy comes from a book, an autobiography of a retired high court judge who also happens to be an Ahmadi, which was published by Shoaib Adil seven years back. The complainants against Adil are none other than the powerful witch-hunters with strong and closed links with some of the leaders of religious establishment in Pakistan. Arguably, the publishing of the book was just an excuse; Shoaib Adil’s real crime was to take a clear, bold stance on issues of religious militancy and conservatism through his publications.
There are dozens of other examples illustrating the various limits where media has to bow down before the powers that be. Be it the murder of Saleem Shahzad, attack on Hamid Mir, or allegation of blasphemy against Geo TV, the limits on Pakistani media freedom are too stark. This goes against the common practice of media’s power to shake the governments and probe into anybody’s personal life. From the corridors of power to an ordinary street, everyone is aware of the power of media in Pakistan. Since its advent, the private media has been crediting itself as the harbinger of change. At the same time, it has also been hankering to elevate itself as the ultimate check on varied authorities of the state and society. In its pursuit for power, the media has relentlessly grilled people from every walk of life including sitting prime ministers. Only two groups make themselves stand above its authority; the security and the religious establishments.
In case of security establishment, set aside the lip service to democracy and a few notable exceptions, have our channels not been blindly propagating establishment’s narrative. Over the years, the real and perceived threats and pressures from the establishment has compelled Pakistani media to impose a stringent self-censorship. Anything could be permissible in Pakistan until it does not call into question the established security practices and its associated narrative. The deviance from this rule can undermine the media’s capacity and freedom to work. The most notable example in this regard is the recent eclipse of Geo network, Pakistan’s largest private media group so far; whose confrontation with the establishment has cost it irreparable damage.
The other multitude of limitations that come from the religious folks, though more diverse in nature, are sometimes complementary and deeply intertwined with the wants of security establishment. The fate of Shoaib Adil and that of Nia Zamana is but a small specimen of such trend. Despite its small scale distribution, the dissent expressed in it was totally unacceptable for the moral and political brigades of this country.
While there are reasons to celebrate the limited media independence in Pakistan, there are more urgent and pressing reasons not to close our eyes to the rapidly tightening grip on such amenity. Freedom can only be defined as the freedom to differ. Unless we accept that in totality, the little freedom enjoyed by the others will always stand in jeopardy. Merely the surfacing of new, technologically advanced media groups, but with the same old faces, will not make a big difference. The big shots in Pakistani media, for their own sake, need to realize this.