The squeezing of the Pakistani media by the government and military

Media houses are facing a financial crisis after the government cut its subsidies, and journalists are under threat.

WrittenBy:Umer Farooq
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The Pakistani media’s leading anchorperson Matiullah Jan is a journalist with a proclivity towards criticising the government’s and military’s role in politics. He also doesn’t desist from criticising the Supreme Court—a state institution considered off-limits by most of the Pakistani media.

In the second week of October, he was sacked by Waqt News, a private news channel, for whom he has been doing a prime-time political talk show called Apna Apna Gereban (“Introspection for Everyone”) for the past six years. He announced his sacking while his talk show was on air and tweeted: “Got my marching orders after 6 years of association with WaqtnewsTV”.

In the sphere of Pakistani media, Matiullah’s firing is seen as the culmination of a long process of squeezing of Pakistani media houses by the military and the PTI government. The process included ending the government subsidies provided to the media houses in the form of government advertisements.

Since the 1970s, the Pakistani government has been subsidising media houses by providing them advertisements worth millions of rupees. The exact amount of funding to the media houses is a secret between the government and media house owners. However, this funding was considered enough to keep the media houses commercially viable.

“The financial crisis of the news organisations was orchestrated by the military. After the PTI government came to power, the situation was exacerbated when the government stopped releasing advertisements to the media houses,” said the media owner of a small newspaper, on condition of anonymity. He said he would soon be shutting down his newspaper as it has become commercially unviable.

On October 17, 2018—the day Matiullah was sacked—a delegation of Pakistan media owners held a meeting with Prime Minister Imran Khan in his office in Islamabad and asked him to review the policy of not issuing advertisements to media houses.

According to an insider, media owners, one by one, tried to convince Khan of the need to restore government subsidies to news organisations. Khan listened to all of them but refused to revive the advertisements to the media houses. Instead, he advised the media owners to rationalise the salaries, paid in millions, to the leading anchorpersons.

In the meeting, the issue of unannounced censorship of the media didn’t come up for discussion. Neither the prime minister nor the media owners raised the issue of criticism of the military’s role in politics in the media. That issue was left to be discussed in another meeting that the media owners had with the head of the military’s media wing—commonly referred to as the Inter-Services Public Relations Directorate or simply ISPR. Headed by a major general, ISPR has a major role in media management by Pakistani state machinery. Many journalists accuse ISPR of being behind the arm-twisting of reporters and journalists critical of the military’s role in politics.

The amount of power that ISPR has come to attain in the Pakistani power structure can be judged by the fact that the incumbent information minister, Fawad Chaudhry, was summoned to the meeting between ISPR headMajor General Asif Ghafoor and media house owners. In the meeting, insiders say the military authorities specifically mentioned that no criticism of the military would be acceptable in the future. The military authorities told the owner of Dawn group, Hameed Haroon, that his newspaper’s practice of referring to “Kashmiri freedom fighters” as “insurgents” and “militants” would be no longer be acceptable.

Neither the government nor the military has put out any version of the meeting for the public. The media owners, on the other hand, are not ready to acknowledge that they went to the prime minister for the purpose of asking for the restoration of their advertisement revenues. The only indication that the meeting discussed the subsidies was the subsequent sacking of Matiullah Jan and another senior journalist and anchorperson, Murtaza Solangi, by their respective news channels within 24 hours of the meeting. This crunch has also been seen in media houses for the past three months when they went on a spree of sacking their employees or introducing cuts in the salaries of their senior staff.

Matiullah’s firing, however, triggered the debate in media circles that the military and government were out to strangle the free media. Waqt TV did not disclose the reason behind his termination. But Matiullah is clear that the reason is the military’s campaign to target independent journalists. Speaking to Newslaundry, he said, “It is related to the financial crisis that the media is facing. But it is more of a political victimisation in which the military targeted me and a few other journalists and declared us persona non grata in one of their press conferences.”

Squeezing the finances of the media is only one aspect of the campaign. Issuing direct threats to journalists is not something unheard of in Pakistan now. Matiullah says a few months ago, the military issued a threat alert for a few journalists—including him—saying their lives were under threat from the militants. “I didn’t consider it a threat alert, it was a direct threat to us,” he said.

Matiullah is not alone in making these complaints. Another senior journalist and anchorperson, Talat Hussein, says the military was applying indirect means to pressurise the journalists. Talat Hussein is also critical of the military’s role in allegedly rigging the last parliamentary elections which brought the PTI government to power.

“Now the management of my channel is telling me: please, if you don’t care for your own job, you must care for the jobs of hundreds of your colleagues who would go jobless of this channel is closed,” Talat Hussein said in a video blog recently.

With the media houses in such a dire financial situation and state machinery out to control the independent voices, the future looks grim for the Pakistani media.


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