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Free press: but who is listening?

A free press plays a very significant role in the progress and development of a society. The press in Pakistan is presently enjoying a status that gives it a rare opportunity to help move the country forward in the right direction. It has not enjoyed so much freedom in the last many years. There have been a number of dark days in its history during army dictatorships and even during the early days of the return to democracy. Every player has played his card in suppressing the press to his advantage thus making this professional community a very frustrated lot. Times seem to have changed in its favour and the press visibly is taking due advantage of it. There are of course some black sheep but they are a rare commodity and turn up every now and then.

One could never have imagined that a journalist could address the head of government as “the private banker” in the “good old days”. But then I am not sure if such an expression falls in the realm of freedom or it is a mere travesty. In any case those were bad days. I can recall with regret the days during General Ziaul Haq’s tenure when almost every night after office hours I would sit at home and issue Press Advice to the newspapers. It certainly was a very ugly experience and all officers in the Press Information Department dreaded it. In case I was not available the other officers preferred taking turns on issuing the advice. They did not like to advice the editors every day for I can assure you it was a tormenting encounter. In addition to the issuance of press advices there were other tricks being played on the poor press. Even during the first tenure of Benazir Bhutto, the Federal government issued news stories on behalf of a provincial government that had no idea what was going on. But I am sure things have taken a different turn now. However the lever of government advertisements is still presumably being used to rein in the editors, though this measure has lost its real sting.

Yet it might surprise many readers and my friends in the press that even the commercial advertisements were “censored”. It is unbelievable but it did happen. On an occasion the P.I.D. was directed by General Ziaul Haq to prepare displays of the so-called vulgar advertisements that had appeared in the press. The needful was done for the General’s inspection. He made certain suggestions to make them look more vulgar and the displays were redone.
The editors of major dailies were invited from all over the country for a lunch with the General. After a sumptuous lunch the editors were taken to a small hall where the displays had been arranged. They walked through the displays and then sat down with the General who expressed his annoyance over the advertisements and asked the editors to make amends. How really vulgar were the advertisements, let us leave that to the imagination of the readers.

Yes the press plays an important role and there could not have been a better example than that which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon of the United States. The two journalists of The Washington Post took all risks to bring down the most powerful man in the world. We do not have to that but there is no doubt that the Pakistani press has been playing a very positive role in bringing to the forefront the problems being faced by the nation. Some of the problems are life-threatening and the press has left no stone unturned in bringing them to light. The news reporters have done their part and the columnists are on the forefront in putting up thoughts that need to be taken up seriously. There are quite a few distinguished writers who have spent a lifetime in journalism and their experience definitely matters.

Pakistan is presently facing many serious problems both on the internal and the external fronts. Inside the country we need to tackle demons in the political, economic and the social sectors. For instance we are not very comfortable with our present political set-up; poverty is on the rise; the matter of personal security is a major headache, which needs to be tackled most urgently and so on.

The reporters have done a great job of investigative reporting. There are numerous valid suggestions being put up by our distinguished columnists every day. But is anybody listening? That is where the problem lies. Is anybody paying any attention? The answer is a flat “NO”.
Attention has been paid only when a matter has gone totally out of hand and it has become public knowledge that the government has miserably failed on that account. Similarly the suggestions of columnists are paid no attention. The free press is being totally ignored. What is the use of a press that is free but can have no impact on the society. The government has adopted a shrewd policy of giving total freedom to the press and paying no heed to it. If that was not the case the menace of poverty, unemployment, indiscipline in its many forms and serious crimes like dacoities, murders and rapes would have been dealt with on a top priority basis. The press could not have done a better job in bringing these problems to the forefront. Our eminent columnists have poured their hearts out to make suggestions for bringing the country back on the right track but to no avail.

It might come as another surprise to the readers but the government of the dark days definitely paid more attention to the press of its day.

Every important story was monitored and action taken immediately. Some actions were not very palatable though but nothing was left to chance. All relevant government functionaries were duly informed by the P.I.D. to take necessary action and in many cases it was to end the plight of individuals. On occasions General Ziaul Haq would personally issue orders on the press summaries for immediate action. He definitely deserves credit on this account at least. I would not like to suggest that those days were better in any way but the press was given “due importance” and was certainly not ignored. It was playing its due role in spite of the severe restrictions placed on it. It is still playing a very important role and rather aggressively but is it bringing the desired results? No! You can see the frustration in some of the comments, which appear almost daily.

These comments are not by those who are regular critics of the present set-up but by those who genuinely feel for the motherland and would like to see it come out of the present predicament or else we will keep sinking deeper into nothingness. They certainly want the nation to become enlightened but want to follow a different path; a path that will indisputably take us there for the world to see. The world sees us totally in a different perspective now but we seem to have closed our eyes to this reality. This is what the patriotic press is trying to convey but it all falls on deaf ears.

What more can a responsible press do? As they say the ball is now in the court of the government and the government has to respond in an appropriate manner. The two, hand-in-hand, can certainly bring about sanity to a nation that seems to have lost its path for sure. The two together can bring about enlightenment into the society that we so desperately need. Unless the two move together in the right direction the nation would not be able to move forward with the comity of nations and it is no easy job to do so in this highly aware and competitive world. We need not be disillusioned however by the enormous difficulties being faced by the press. The two “adversaries” I am sure we will overcome the intricacies at some point in time and the twain shall meet.
The writer is a former Principal Information Officer to the Government of Pakistan.

Source: The Nation