This piece first appeared as a Commentary on McClatchyDC.com, August 24, 2010
It is hard to imagine a government that faces more existential threats to its people, state, and democracy than the current civilian government in Pakistan.
In the midst of grappling with catastrophic destruction from massive flooding, Pakistan is also battling a brutal extremist insurgency. The civilian democratic government led by the Pakistan People's Party in Islamabad needs all the friends it can rally. So you have to wonder why elements of the ruling party have now strongly turned against the free media.
The ostensible reason for the attacks is the television coverage of a shoe-throwing incident at President Zardari's public meeting in Birmingham, England. The media, both domestic and international, has been especially critical of President Zardari's recent luxurious trip to Europe while Pakistan faces the worst natural disaster in its history.
These recent violent attacks on popular media outlets reportedly have been conducted by PPP activists, led by local party leaders and proclaimed as the rightful response to the "hurtful" news being broadcasted by the targeted channels. "Jiyalas," as the passionate PPP activists are widely known, reportedly laid siege to Geo TV offices in Karachi, a city already plagued with a recent upsurge in violence that has claimed hundreds of lives. They warned news channels involved in covering President Zardari's foreign visit to cease their critical coverage and expressed extreme displeasure at their "propaganda" against the government.
It was only a short time ago in 2008 that the present government was heralded as the harbinger of a new era in Pakistan's political history: democratically elected, built on a broad consensus and fully recognizant of the virtues of democracy. The independent media was an instrumental ally of civilian democrats in the successful ouster of military rule. But the media and the elected government were soon on the war path. And they continue to remain at loggerheads, with the media criticizing the inability of the government to manage the multiple crises facing Pakistan.
The regrettable inclination of Pakistani governments, both dictatorships and civilian authorities, has been to curb media freedoms by blocking broadcasting, banning various anchors and threatening media personnel. These measures have almost always been counterproductive. General Musharraf, after earlier opening the airways to free media, banned the largest television channel in the country in November 2007. This measure prompted mass protests in support of the media, which played a leading role in his eventual resignation.
When President Zardari's government refused to restore the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan in contravention of his campaign promise, he faced vocal criticism by the media. Unfortunately, he responded by banning the nation’s most widely view cable station, Geo TV. But President Zardari too was forced to retreat and ordered the restoration of both the Chief Justice and the television channel's transmission.
The multiplicity of channels and view points in the media makes it one of the most influential industries in Pakistan, reaching millions of citizens.
The sheer scale of media viewership and its popularity among the population gives the media unrivaled power to influence public opinion positively — and all too often, to spread negative conspiracy theories as well. The reach of the media becomes more important as the government battles an insurgency in the north, seeks to eliminate terrorism around the country, and attracts harsh criticism of its role in the war on terror. The lack of recognition of the media as a potent force for change, and indeed a desirable partner for a democratic government, has been one of Pakistan's persistent failings.
As the media grapples with its own rising profile as an opinion-maker and attempts to be a more responsible participant in the political landscape of Pakistan, it is incumbent upon all those who care about Pakistan's future -- both Army and civilian democratic elites -- to cultivate a productive relationship with this indispensable actor.
American interest in the region lies in the development of a sustainable partnership with a Pakistan that will be an effective counterweight against brutal extremists who target both Pakistan's democracy and US interests. Such a partnership must, perforce, be based on shared values of a democratic society if it is to transcend historical arrangements of convenience between successive US governments and authoritarian regimes in Pakistan. The freedom of the Pakistani media to criticize the government without fear of reprisals is a fundamental element of a healthy democracy. Attacking the media does not serve the best interests of the current government in Pakistan or those of the United States.
More to the point, the media must play a responsible role in the essential task of building a stable, prosperous nation. For that to happen, the government and Army must respect media freedoms and avoid destructive confrontations with an important societal actor.
Assertions and opinions in this editorial are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.