How Pakistan media became a player in politics

Part 2 of a brief history of Pakistani media.

WrittenBy:Umer Farooq
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Read Part 1 here.

By the middle of the last decade, the Pakistani media became a player in the power politics of the country. Popular journalists started to pretend and claim that were the force behind the political change in Islamabad in 2008—the year Musharraf was ousted from power. By this time, many in the media community claimed the media was instrumental in dislodging him from power. Veteran journalist M Zia-uddin says some media houses become immensely powerful at the political level.

General Musharraf, however, played no small part in making these media houses so powerful as to make them capable of orchestrating a political change in the country. Zia-uddin says, “There was a law in the country, which prevented cross media ownership. A media house which owned a newspaper could not own a television channel … Musharraf changed the law to allow a television channel to the owner of the Jang group.”

Jang was the largest Urdu newspaper in Pakistan and it was owned by Mir Shakeel-ur-Rehman, who also owned the largest English newspaper, The News. With Musharraf’s change in the law, Shakeel-ur-Rehman now also owned Geo TV, a channel with the largest reach. “They became very powerful. They thought they can make and break governments,” says Zia-uddin.

The demise of the Musharraf regime allowed the return of parliamentary democracy in the country. The  Pakistan People’s Party and Pakistani Muslim League (Nawaz) took turns to run the federal government in Islamabad. The political class which came to governing positions in the next 10 years were on friendly terms with the media—or at least with the leading journalists and media houses of the country. This meant less friction between the successive governments and the media community.

In this situation, the Pakistani media mostly continued its pro-democracy tradition. However, there were increasing signs that the military establishment was making inroads into media houses, making space with the counter-argument that democracy has given nothing to the country. As a result, some of the media houses ran campaigns to malign the political class who ruled country from 2008 till 2018 in the post Musharraf period.

Media house owners were increasingly tilted against the political class, which by default was representing democracy in the country. The new news channels launched massive campaigns to malign former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and former President Asif Ali Zardari by labeling them as most “corrupt politicians” in the history of the country.

This increasingly fluid situation allowed some new businessmen—usually known as influence-mongers—to launch news channels of their own. In this period, Pakistan witnessed a ghee mill owner and a bakery owner starting their own popular news channels. Both channels turned out to be highly pro-military and highly anti-democracy. It is not difficult to understand who lobbied them to launch campaigns against the political class.

M Zia-uddin says Pakistani media owners have never been pro-democracy, “They have always sided with the government of the day … and in most of the past decades , the government of the day had been military. The owners of pro-democracy traditions in the media houses are the workers of the media … They are the ones who always sided with democracy.”

However old media houses were not very far behind in the campaign to malign the political class at the behest of military establishment. In mid-October 2010, the Pakistan Supreme Court asked the government of Pakistan to inform the court in black and white whether it was ready to follow the orders of the court in writing to the Swiss authorities for opening the money laundering cases against President Asif Ali Zardari.

The government was unequivocal in its position that Asif Ali Zardari as President enjoyed the constitutional immunity and no criminal case could be instituted against him while he remained the President of Pakistan. The proceedings in the Supreme Court were not criminal in nature as the court was hearing a constitutional petition under its civil jurisdiction. However the Supreme Court in one of its order had asked the government to initiate money-laundering cases against President Asif Ali Zardari in Swiss court.

Thus the government came forward with the objection that the Pakistani Constitution specifically provides immunity to the President against any criminal proceedings. The overwhelming majority of constitutional experts in Pakistan agreed with the government that Pakistani law was very clear on the point: no criminal proceedings could be initiated against President of Pakistan.  

Not everyone was satisfied with government’s answer. Pakistan’s leading news channel, Geo TV,  launched a public message campaign, urging President Asif Ali Zardari to appear before the court in line with the great Islamic history, where even Caliph Umar Farooq appeared before Islamic courts and explained his positions to the Qazi. It was an incessant public service messages campaign and the television channel used to broadcast the long skit repeatedly, at the start of hourly bulletins and at the conclusion of every talk show. This was coupled with the talk shows and special reports, in which the public is routinely informed about the past and ongoing rampant corruption in the government’s ranks.”

The public service message campaign proved to the proverbial last straw and the government and ruling party started to react. A senior official of PPP announced in a press conference that no parliamentarian and party leader would participate in any of the talk show of Geo TV and the whole party would completely boycott the publications and TV programs of their owner, the Jang media group.

There had been other cases of friction between the ruling political elite and journalist community in the period from 2008 to 2018. But these frictions remained restricted to verbal clashes. No untoward incident was reported during the tenures of two elected governments in which the civil government was said to be instrumental.

A senior journalist, Saleem Shahzad, who served as the Pakistan Bureau Chief of Asia Times Online, was killed in 2010 after he disappeared in mysterious circumstances from Islamabad. But nobody accused the civil government of being behind his disappearance or killing. He was famous for unearthing the militants’ nexus with Pakistani security apparatus.

The last four years have, however, seen gruesome brutalities unleashed against Pakistani media people, especially in Islamabad.


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