Let me clarify at the outset: No believer in democracy, nor a media professional can dispute the fundamental democratic right of freedom of the press. I stood among the protestors when the government of Benazir Bhutto had instituted a sedition case against The News in the mid 1990s and the Jang-The New group faced official censure including bar on advertisements. As a private media professional, who largely worked for 25 years for the German public broadcaster, Deutsche Welle, CNN and NHK (Japan) I also opposed the state of emergency General Pervez Musharraf had imposed in November 2007. I opposed it on the state Pakistan TV, which abruptly ended the show when I became critical of the electronic media black-out. But the course of events and the current state of affairs in Pakistan have forced me to raise some basic questions, even about some very powerful personalities – of course at the cost of annoying them.
The international Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on March 12 made the following demand via twitter.
“Pakistani authorities should immediately release Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, editor-in-chief of the Jang Media Group…the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a statement. … “
The demand is legitimate, and the defense counsel Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan, known for his brilliance in defending his clients including the property tycoon Malik Riaz Hussein, is likely to tear apart the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) case bit by bit. He has already questioned the clumsy way the case against Mir has been initiated by NAB, Pakistan’s anti-corruption body currently embroiled in several controversies because of cases mostly against opposition politicians.
But my problem begins with the latter part of the CPJ statement i.e. This arrest over a 34-year-old land deal makes a mockery of Pakistan’s claim to be a democracy that upholds freedom of the press.”
The arrest indeed is controversial at best. Even if the allegations are true, the manner of his arrest in an ongoing case raise many questions.
But as a journalist/writer, I am also cognizant of the rights of thousands of my fellow workers – who keep complaining of delayed salaries, or non-payment of salaries for months.
That is why I have a few questions for the CPJ:
Firstly, is the CPJ equating the arrest of a businessman with that of a media person?
Let us refer to the two-member bench of the Lahore High Court which asked the defense counsel Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan (March 26) whether Mir Shakeelur Reman (MSR) was a businessman. It also asked if a journalist can be considered a businessman.
“Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman is a businessman and is running a very large group,” Barrister Ahsan responded.
Mr.Rehman made a similar statement outside a court too.
( I am a businessman and have to protect my business interests first).
Secondly, how frequently has the CPJ raised the issue of non-payment of salaries to thousands of workers of private media groups, including several leading groups?
Currently, barring a few, most media groups are in violation of existing laws as well as fundamental rights of thousands of workers by
- not paying salaries in time
- delaying salaries for at least three months, meaning thereby that the actual salary comes down to at least half of what is promised in the contract.
Mind you, this happens to at least 80 percent of the tv-paper staff, who already live on the margins because of extremely limited resources.
Would CPJ mind conducting a survey into this issue before speaking up for media tzars – who own properties and businesses worth tens of billions of rupees – other than their media companies?
The CPJ should know that the last bulk payments of the outstanding salaries most media groups had to make was under the instructions of the apex Supreme Court in June 2018?
Thirdly, does the CPJ know, that when the current prime minister Imran Khan had his first meeting with several journalists in late 2018, almost all of them – the owners – spoke about their outstanding dues (accumulated in the last year of the previous government).
They wanted their dues cleared and asked for more government advertisements.
Only one veteran journalist present there – M. Ziauddin, rose and drew Khan’s attention to the plight of thousands of workers. “The kitchen of these gentlemen are running but what about the financial miseries of those working for them?” he asked.
Fourth, does the CPJ know how major media houses kept milking the current public advertisement system for decades, without really passing on the benefit to their workers? Some of the groups exploited the system to the hilt – of course with the blessing of the sitting Prime Minister/Chief Ministers.
Among them were many, extremely well-placed and influential owner/editors, who would spike our columns for the sake of the hand-outs they were getting from the Ministry of Information in the name of “advertisement payments.”
PM Khan’s government has abolished the official patronage of the few chosen media groups and persons. Together with the complicit ministry officials, they represented a microcosm of the elite capture in Pakistan; over seven decades, this mighty confluence of interests has emasculated political, economic and administrative powers to their own advantage happened, as encapsulated by the leading independent jurist/economist Dr. Ikramul Haq.
Pakistan is captive in the hands of indomitable militro-judicial-civil complex, landed aristocracy, industrialist-turned politicians, wealthy traders, pseudo religious scholars, so-called spiritual leaders, media tycoons and the fast-emerging group of powerful television anchors. Flouting the rule of law with impunity is their hallmark (https://fp.brecorder.com/
That system of patronage through government advertisements and ruling party campaigns via federal and provincial ministries is – as of now – nearly gone. Coupled with the financial crunch, the current government is not ready to keep making similar hefty payments – which most media houses gratefully received as subsidies, and at times through under-the-table arrangements.
Because advertisements and publicity campaigns were one of the means of patronage.
Fifth, I would with respect point out to the CPJ the irony that the media keeps crying hoarse to why the government is subsidizing loss-making national corporations, but at the same time expect subsidies to run their own business and often fatten personal accounts, instead of sharing that with their field workers?
Sixth, does the #CPJ know that a number of leading media groups charge their clients general sales tax (GST) but mostly do not submit these deducted GST into the national exchequer.
Until recent past, many media groups used to deduct income tax from the their staff salaries – withholding tax – but instead of depositing it into the national exchequer, hold on to these dedicated funds for diversion into personal or sister company accounts. This is a bitter reality and not heresy.
While many media barons denied salaries, suspended or closed down operations without clearing dues of poor workers, they themselves continue to survive and thrive, with funds parked abroad.
Seventh, will CPJ look into how much private channels comply with the rules of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), the license -issuing authority?
Under the PEMRA laws, all channels are required to
- annually submit part of their losses with PEMRA
- devote at least 8 minutes for public interest advocacy
- pay up the penalties that PEMRA imposes for Code of Ethics violation.
Will CPJ look into the above three?
I understand that the CPJ is meant to protect journalists rights. and not to stand for media barons who treat their staff as sub-humans and hide behind a questionable judicial system when challenged or penalized.
The CPJ really needs to understand internal complex dynamics before judging state and government actions . Vilification of a state, without looking at those complaining about the state actions, is immoral and unprofessional.
The writer is a former correspondent for German public broadcaster, Deutsche Welle, currently the Chief Editor of the monthly magazine MatrixMag
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