Blogosphere Liberates Pakistani Journalists

Fed up with government press restrictions and media self-censorship, they find their voice on web.

Blogosphere Liberates Pakistani Journalists

Fed up with government press restrictions and media self-censorship, they find their voice on web.

Tuesday, 2 February, 2010
Ownership of Pakistan's media was liberalised by then president Pervez Musharraf in 2002 but it faced immense pressure and censorship under his government.

For many people, the media now has a chance to rise again under the new government of Asif Ali Zardari that took over in 2008 - not just mainstream media, but also online outlets.

Musharraf's measures included the creation of the media regulatory body PEMRA and paved the way for the emergence of independent newspapers, TV channels and radio stations.

They were initially aimed at enhancing Pakistan's national prestige. The military felt that a freer and more independent media would rival India's. However, when the media did its job and voiced concerns over government actions, the regime used PEMRA to shut down and ban TV and radio stations, such as GEO News and Dawn TV.

Online and to some extent print media have escaped mostly unscathed and blogging has evolved as a forum for expressing opinion. Musharraf's emergency laws in 2007 restricted the operation of TV and radio stations but online media were left untouched because they were not seen as a threat.

The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Ordinance aimed at tackling terrorism and cyber-crime, which Zardari's government introduced, has however raised concerns about the future of online media. It does not so much curtail blogging but can be used to punish anyone deemed to have harmed the nation or the government.

This raises a number of questions. Does the end of Musharraf's nine-year military rule mean the media can now develop under the government of Zardari? Can blogging be used as an effective means of exercising freedom of speech and empower citizens?

Pakistan is currently undergoing a transition to democracy and there is hope of change. In 2009, Zardari's government blocked access to GEO TV because of its coverage of the lawyers' long march, a protest calling for reinstatement of lawyers who were sacked under Musharraf's emergency laws.

This raised questions about the limits of press freedoms and the extent to which the government still retained control.

At the same time, the gulf between the Urdu media and the English media within Pakistan remains an obstacle to its development.

The English media such as Dawn are more secular and liberal whereas its Urdu counterparts, the likes of Jang and Nawa-i-Waqt tend to be more conservative in the issues they cover.

While Dawn tries to be more objective in its reporting, bias and a tendency to be more sensational in news coverage are prevalent amongst the Urdu media.

Huma Yusuf, a reporter in Pakistan for the Christian Science Monitor, says, "It is well documented that the Urdu press is more influenced by the government and that many reporters are on the payroll of different political parties."

The mainstream media not only suffer from this language divide but also issues of objectivity and professionalism that need to be addressed in order for it to develop.

Also, there is still much self-censorship in Pakistan. TV channel owners will refuse to air coverage of certain issues if they have close links with the government.

The dangers of working in the conflict-ridden tribal regions of Pakistan, including the North West Frontier Province, also lead to curbs on reporting.

Militants and security forces have restricted journalistic activity in conflict areas like South Waziristan. In 2009, the army sealed the area and refused to allow journalists in. They were limited to interviewing people in refugee camps about poor conditions there.

Censorship by the military and the Taleban is an additional problem. Niaz Khan, who writes for Khyber News, described his experiences in Peshawar, "We could not term the Taleban terrorists in our reports. If they kidnapped somebody or looted something we would not be allowed to name the Taleban openly.

"If they torched or blasted schools, we were not allowed to say so in the press and if we said anything against them, they would threaten us straightaway.

"From the government side, if they shot or killed innocent people during an operation, the army would never allow us to report the real news and never permit us to go to the place."

Censorship and fears of crackdowns have paved the way for a generation of bloggers, who are increasingly using the online medium to voice their opinions.

Restrictions placed on the mainstream media under Musharraf's emergency laws have encouraged blogging and created a freer space for people to write. In the post-Musharraf era, it remains an area untouched by government, but concerns remain.

The information technology ministry acknowledged this trend by hosting a national bloggers conference in Karachi, in June 2009, where officials and well-known bloggers came together to discuss the future of blogging. It was a move initiated by Raza Haroon, minister for information technology for the Pakistani province of Sindh.

The idea for a conference emerged after a group of bloggers in Karachi approached Haroon, raising concerns over the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Ordinance. They argued that this legislation could limit their freedom to write if it is misused.

Haroon said his aim is to reform anti-terrorism legislation so that it doesn't affect blogging in future.

After the national bloggers conference, an advisory committee of experts and bloggers was set up by the Sindh government in Karachi to develop the medium further.

The development of Pakistan's online media currently faces a number of problems, however. Low levels of literacy and access to computers and the internet is an issue for the majority of the population. According to a United Nations report, 44 per cent of the population cannot read or write and the majority of them are women.

Salman Siddiqui, a journalist for Dawn, a liberal media organisation with a newspaper and a website, highlights some problems with blogging in Pakistan, "Blogging is yet to be taken seriously by people in general here. I think the problem is awareness.

"Many people still think that it takes rocket science to launch a personal weblog page. Students at public universities and colleges are also a big group missing from the blogosphere."

While the national bloggers conference does highlight the rise of the online medium, it also suggests that the blogosphere, like the Pakistani media, has a long way to go.

Press freedoms and media development are still limited. The government remains in tacit control of broadcasting and local militants still have the power to curb the freedom of the press in a number of troubled regions of Pakistan.

This leaves the blogosphere with huge potential to be used as a medium to voice Pakistani youth's opinions without fear of censorship and also avoiding militant pressure.

While the prospects of change are not around the corner, the transition to democracy can be led by the development of the medium and empowering citizens via journalism training in the medium of print news and blogging.

Ruje Yasmin is an intern for the Pakistan Open Minds Project.
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