Kiran Omar


” A free press can be good or bad, but, most certainly, without freedom a press will never be anything but bad.”….(Albert Camus)


The newly installed government of Yousaf Raza Gilani has made many promises to the nation, amongst them is the striking down of the much hated Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) Bill.


On 11 April, 2008, the freshly minted Information and Broadcasting Minister, Ms. Sherry Rehman delivered the first phase of PM Gilani’s promise, by introducing a bill in Parliament to lift the restraints imposed on the media by the Musharraf government .


Ms. Rehman declared, “The draconian laws that threatened coercive action against the press will be removed via this bill to begin the process of providing a free press in Pakistan…..”  She hopes the bill will become a law, and went on to add, “the new government would take steps to protect journalists and promised new measures for print and electronic media.”


This “black law” was enacted in 2005 by the Musharraf government, amid a huge outcry from the Opposition, journalists at home and abroad, the civil society and the nation as a whole. This law gave the PEMRA and the government sweeping powers to shut down, cease operations and suspend licenses of any private television or electronic media provider that it saw contravening government policy. It could even suspend and block live coverage arbitrarily. In short, PEMRA was given a free hand to muzzle dissenting voices in the media in Pakistan. In a country where the literacy rate hovers around 48%, the print media does not have the same impact as the electronic media, or the same outreach.


 Ironically it was the Musharraf regime that opened the country’s airwaves to private satellite TV and Radio operators and providers. As a result, Pakistan enjoyed an unprecedented boom in entertainment, news and specialized private TV channels. Almost overnight Pakistanis were pulled into the electronic information age.


Since its inception in 1947, the governments and the press in Pakistan have had a bitter and contentious relationship.  They have been uneasy bedfellows at best and deeply antagonistic at worst. The founding father Mr. Jinnah, however, had a very different vision of the role of the press in public life.  In one of his addresses to journalists he remarked…..”I expect you (journalists) to be completely fearless. If I go wrong for that matter Muslim League [his party] goes wrong in any direction. I want you to criticize it honestly as its friend…………….”  Under his stewardship, no legislation was passed that restricted the freedom of the press. However his tenure as head of state was brief. After his death in 1948, the Public Safety Ordinance was implemented and banned over 31 newspapers and journals on the flimsiest of excuses of violating or threatening “national security” and “public safety.” Amongst the banned journals were literary magazines and scholarly periodicals that had nothing to do with matters of national security.


The darkest period of the press was the one ushered in by Gen. Ayub Khan who seized power in 1958 by a bloodless coupe. He came down on the press with an iron fist. in 1960, he promulgated the infamous Press and Publication Ordinance (PPO), which was further hardened by amendments in 1963 that cracked down hard on journalists and newspapers.


During this period newspapers were reduced to mere government mouthpieces. The PPO gave the government wide-ranging powers to virtually silence the print media. Journalists and publishers were routinely rounded up, jailed and tortured.


This policy of repression of the press was continued by Gen. Zia-ul Haq and even during Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s democratic government. During the Zia regime, the PPO was enforced even more vigorously. Z. A Bhutto – who started his rule as a civilian administrator — began his term by trying to reach out to the journalist community and appeared to ease some restrictions that were in effect. However, his feudal instincts took over and he too tightened the noose and used his policy of nationalization to takeover many independent news agencies and presses.


After a long hard struggle, the dreaded PPO was repealed in 1988. Since then, there has been a steady relaxation of both attitudes and measures curtailing press freedom. Politicians and the press are locked in a symbiotic relationship that borders on the antagonistic, and often spills over into open animosity.


By the 1990’s the print media saw expansion by the addition of new newspaper groups like The News, etc. and the entry of the electronic media on to the country’s airwaves in the form of CNN, BBC, Sky News, etc. as private satellite channels were allowed bandwidth for the first time. At this time too, FM radio was introduced in Pakistan. Licenses were issued to private TV and radio channels, and the Pakistani public, were offered choices other than the State controlled radio and TV services. Ironically, it took a “soft” military dictator to free up the press and media in Pakistan.


However, this honeymoon was short-lived. In 2005, Musharraf struck with the PEMRA Bill. The press, the electronic media and the State were again embroiled in a highly charged confrontational and often violent standoff. Private TV stations were vandalized and trashed by the police, transmissions were blocked and pressure was exerted upon the Middle-Eastern countries which were home to many of these private satellite channels, to exercise a strict censorship policy towards them. There was a clear understanding that until real and true democracy was not restored, it was virtually impossible for the media and press to function in an unfettered manner, as was its mandate. Democracy and freedom of the press are interlinked and cannot survive one without the other. A free media and press ensure that the proper checks and balances are in place, good governance is in practice and that there is transparency and accountability of public institutions. It promotes greater participation by the public in governance and strengthening the rule of law.


Today Pakistan is once again treading the path towards democracy and restoration of the supremacy of the rule of law. The new government promises not only to lift the barriers from the press, but also to restore the judiciary to its rightful stature. Only time will tell how far the State goes towards fulfilling these vows.


“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it” said George Bernard Shaw, and the media and press must recognize this fact. After the euphoria of their hard fought freedom settles, media professionals and journalists have to examine their policies and reporting modus operendi to ensure that they live up to the nation’s expectations . We are in an age where TV images have invaded even the most humble homes.


There are villages in rural Pakistan and in remote mountain areas, where proper roads are absent, but satellite dishes are mushrooming over clay-baked mud roofs. Private satellite channels and their political talk-shows have introduced for the first time, the culture of public debate and analysis. Phone-in shows and town-hall like forums have brought the public face-to-face with politicians and bureaucrats.  Suddenly those locked away in ivory towers, find themselves facing the public ire and wrath through a barrage of questions and demands for accountability.


This is the true way of democracies to function.


The public has lobbied, fought and struggled hard towards giving journalists and newscasters a free voice. The onus is now squarely on the media and journalists to reciprocate by reporting fairly, responsibly and in depth. News reporting must move away from the sensational and overly-hyped. Air time and print space must be devoted to more investigative forms of reporting. There is also a need to train journalists and media people in practicing greater professionalism. At a time when the security of the country is under threat both internally and externally, there is a greater need to proceed with caution and prudence. The media must play a constructive and positive role in not only reporting the news as it is, sans the drama, but also foster confidence and trust by ignoring useless conspiracy theories and giving credence to rumors that circulate like a maelstrom.


The agendas of terrorists and extremists are strengthened when TV channels broadcast the mayhem and destruction they cause. The focus should be on the reasons underpinning these acts; the frustration and dissatisfaction that bring them to this callous mood of violence. Attention should be drawn towards proposing concrete measures and possible solutions to end the cycle of violence and destruction. The media can play a vital role in educating and sensitizing the public against any kind of violence and destruction of public property. The need is great for national reconciliation and introspection, and the media must play its due role in this respect.


The country is currently experiencing a grave energy and food crisis. The public is frustrated and is looking for results and there is growing impatience with empty, political rhetoric. The media has to play a more proactive role in focusing on the solid, everyday issues that the public faces in their daily lives. The escalating prices of energy and food; crumbling infrastructures and economic disparities; security threats and urban violence; religious intolerance and bigotry are realities that the media cannot close its eyes towards. These are problems that are pushing increasing numbers of both urban and rural people towards poverty and desperation. It is not enough to report in depth and ad nauseum about the roughing-up of a politician or the ruffled feathers of a power-broker; which in themselves are reprehensible, but what is beyond reprehensible is the lynching of a non-Muslim factory worker in Karachi , by his co-workers whilst the employers and police stood by inactive. What is unacceptable is that women like Bushra Bibi have to resort to committing suicide under the wheels of a speeding train along with her small children as her family was reduced to near famine and desperate poverty resulting from the recent food crisis… Those stories and hundreds more is where the media men and women should be focusing their attention and keeping horrific incidents like these in the forefront of the political agendas, so that the state acts on a war-footing to alleviate peoples’ suffering.


Ms. Rehman, herself a seasoned journalist, brings much experience and knowledge to the ministry under her charge. One hopes she will be cognizant of the challenges facing the journalist community. She will, one hopes, formulate an information policy that is broad-based and inclusive, and will bring about standardization, credibility and restore dignity to the profession of journalism and media.


The journalist community must on its part, show maturity and responsibility so that the democratic process can be strengthened and allowed to take firm root in Pakistani society, and the issues facing the common men and women, are kept in the forefront until they are resolved. Never before has this been a matter of utmost urgency if national integrity and security is to be safeguarded.


In the words of Pakistan’s poet laureate Faiz Ahmed Faiz…


Bol ki lab aazaad hain teray

bol zabaann ab tak teri hai

Tera sutawaan jism hai tera

bol kay jaan ab tak teri hai


Dekh ke aahangar ki dukaan main

tund hain sholay surkh hai aahan


Khulnay lage quffalon kay dahaanay

phailaa har ek zanjiir kaa daaman


Bol yay thora waqt bahot hai

jism-o-zabaan ki maut say pahlay


Bol kay sach zindaa hai ab tak

bol jo kuchh kahana hai kah lay



“Speak, your lips are free. Speak, the tongue is still yours – Your upright body is yours.

Speak, the life is still yours.”

“Look at the blacksmith’s shop – Flames are burning – Iron is red. Locks are opening their jaws.

Shadow of every chain has spread.”

“Speak, this little time is plenty – Before the death of body and tongue.

Speak, the truth is still alive. Speak, say whatever you have to say.”

(Translation by Syed Adeeb)


{Kiran Omar ( is a Pakistani Canadian and lives in  Montreal. She has been a resource person for CERAS (South Asia Center, Montreal), INSAF Bulletin and other institutions on socio-political developments in Pakistan.)

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