The Grey Cardinals Behind Pakistan’s Media Curtain And The Struggle For Press Freedom – OpEd


Freedom of the press is considered a fundamental principle in any democratic system. However, in countries where press freedom is not protected, media more often than not, suffers from censorship or third parties` control. In Pakistan, the history of the journalistic profession is unfortunately filled with examples of harsh controls being imposed on the public discourse.

Such measures have historically included control over narratives, interference in the work of journalists, content restrictions on both mainstream and social media, blocking cable operators from broadcasting networks, the shutdown of television channels and even the termination of live interviews. Such active controls over the press is alarming considering the vital role it plays in a nation’s growth and development. Indeed much needed changes transpire only with a certain level of transparency and freedom where journalists, activists and citizens can express themselves freely.

In recent years, the state of the press in Pakistan has been gradually deteriorating due to a profound, ongoing economic crisis. Financial instability has hit every area of public  life in the country including the press which has been no exception. News organizations have become heavily dependent on powerful groups or individuals who invest in them for revenue. Such an unhealthy relationship between media and their “sponsors” may often lead to a situation where news organizations are simply used to promote the narratives of those who pay. Instead of covering news independently and objectively, journalists can be forced to dance to the tune of the authorities and select private entities. 

Journalists in Pakistan have repeatedly reported receiving instructions regarding what they must cover and what content should be banned from news websites. One of the most recent examples took place right before the recent 2024 Pakistani general election. As the candidates began their political campaigns, news organizations were asked to impose a near-blanket ban on coverage for some opposition parties. After this incident, Human Rights Watch revealed in a damning report that indeed pressure from third parties on Pakistani media outlets has only since increased. 

This is not the only case when media channels were instructed to ban certain individuals or entities from news coverage. In a famous 2015 case, a leader of a Sindh-based party called MQM, Altaf Hussain, addressed his followers live from London, broadcasting his speech on all channels. In his statement, Altaf Hussain criticized the Pakistani authorities, and as a result, was banned from national media and accused of treason. According to international media reports, the ban that restricts journalists in Pakistan from even mentioning Hussain`s name continues to this day.

The history of Pakistani journalism has shown that the media is also sometimes exploited as a conduit for the spread of defamatory information, fake news, and even disinformation. In today`s reality, these methods are widely used for political purposes and to exact domestic social influence. Powerful individuals or groups with the ability to influence the press push narratives and often use disinformation as a tactic for punishing perceived opponents. 

One recent example that stands out amongst others is the case of Malik Riaz, the founder of Asia’s largest real estate development company, Bahria Town, and one of Pakistan’s wealthiest men. Arguably due to his connections to Pakistan’s previous governments and other prominent individuals, Malik Riaz’s company and its assets have been subjected to judicial and media victimization over the course of the last several years, for no clear purpose. 

Even though neither Mr. Riaz nor Bahria Town have ever been found guilty in any of the cases or charges levied against them, several notable media outlets have continued to regularly spread defamatory materials about the businessman. At least once a month, these news outlets publish a new piece attacking Mr. Riaz, his family members, or his company. It is not necessary to be a journalist to recognize a pattern in all articles mentioning Mr. Riaz – they are all based on the opinion of the authors and facts taken out of context, and in some cases a complete distortion of actual legal proceedings and court decisions. In a cruel twist that underlines the stake of misinformation in Pakistani domestic media, the fake news and misinformation that surrounds Mr. Riaz has harmed not only his reputation, but also the underprivileged Pakistanis whom the businessman supports financially through his charitable initiatives

The concerning examples of intervention in media reporting discussed above showcase the urgent need to protect news organizations in Pakistan, but also globally,  from the influence of powerful third parties. Manipulation of the press restricts journalists, bloggers, political commentators, and others from freely expressing themselves, preventing critical dialogue on subjects that matter. 

It does not have to be this way. It is possible to restore media independence by amending the media regulatory framework. Policies that protect freedom of the press in Pakistan would go a long way in achieving economic and political stability and moving forward with economic development. A robust, independent media sector informs the population, provides transparency to public institutions, and helps hold governments, business, and the most powerful sectors of society accountable. Progress in Pakistan will only be possible with freedom of expression, the most fundamental element of a functioning democracy.

Nicholas Dempsie

Nicholas Dempsie is a London-based freelance journalist. His areas of professional interest include innovation and business, with a background in marketing and communication.

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