The other day I ran into some Pakistani journalists who were here in UK to attend Cricket World Cup. Being sports correspondents they were interested to know the real story behind the match fixing scandal of 2010 when I was Pakistan’s High Commissioner.
I got into the mess because of my position as PHC when BCCP Chairman thought it wise to hide his face from the media. Cricket being a passion here one could not avoid the inquisitive news hounds.
I recall it was one evening I had just returned home from PHC when I got a call from my Head Of Chancery to let me know that Metropolitan police had raided Pakistani team in Marriott Hotel, Swiss Cottage where they were staying and they are being interrogated in a match fixing scandal. I summoned my officers who deal with police to the Marriott where we were joined by my HOC, Teams Manager and a retired Colonel In-charge of teams discipline or lack of it.
Deputy Chief of Metropolitan police was convinced that Skipper of the team Salman Butt and two others were involved in a match fixing scam masterminded by a local bookie Majeed. He had leaked the story to News of the World’s Mazhar Mahmood known in the field for such scandalous disclosures. News of the World since than has ceased publication and one does not know whereabouts of Mazhar Mahmood.
My defence Of Pakistani players was on the basis of age-old principle— one is innocent until proven guilty. And when British media cornered me I did not add anything in their defence but I insisted that they were innocent since nothing has been proved against them until then. When police put a restriction that they would not leave British soil unless they are cleared of their alleged charges, we took a stand and used all our diplomatic pressure to let the three musketeers travel back home on our guarantee that they would return to UK whenever they were required for the trial.
Well– that was a digression in a discussion over the current state of Pakistani media spread over many sittings and lo and behold it coincided with the FCO sponsored Global Conference on media freedom hosted by Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Most interesting were two dignitaries that were to highlight the conference and both became subject of controversy. One was famous American Human Rights Lawyer Amal Clooney and other was Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi.
What made SMQ’s attendance in the conference intriguing was the fact that he was not the information minister and that he could not put up a plausible defence of the recent Gestapo-like blitzkrieg on media in Pakistan. British award winning journalist Christina Lamb wrote in a piece in Sunday Times (July 7) on the eve of the conference as to how internationally renowned human rights crusader Asma Jehangir’s daughter/ anchorwoman Munizae Jahangir’s predicaments in the shrinking canvas of free expression and how programmes were muted. Indeed, ‘self-censorship has become part of a growing crackdown on the media, which journalists say is the worst they have encountered since the 1980s military dictatorship.’
It is reported that UK’s first Global Conference for Media Freedom with Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt as its host was to be attended by more than 1,000 journalists and 70 ministers. Though Pakistan’s Foreign Minister was in attendance yet there is no mention of Pakistan among the countries causing concern.
SMQ should have saved the country of immense international embarrassment by avoiding it rather than addressing an auditorium that had more empty chairs than participants. To add insult to injury, Pakistani and ethnic media boycotted the conference to register their protest over alarming crack down on Pakistani media. Later altercation between a Canadian participant and SMQ over the closure of Canadian’s tweeter account left a bad taste in the mouth as SMQ could not defend his government’s uncalled for actions.
Christina who knows Pakistan well perhaps from the age of 20 when as a young journalist she was first time in Karachi to attend the wedding of martyred Benazir Bhutto in December 1987. She has extensively written on Pakistan and authored several books. She remains in touch with the political currents and cross- currents. According to her, the latest media clampdown started in the run-up to last year’s elections when Imran Khan, was, as per popular perception ‘selected’ as prime minister by powers that be through results that were widely believed to have been manipulated by the Establishment.
In her Sunday Times article Christina endorses the perception about massive shrinking of media space since Khan took office as prime minister. According to her media organisations have been subjected to financial sanctions, disruptions to distribution networks and threats to journalists. Latest victim being Dawn Group’s Monthly Herald Magazine. Earlier most popular evening newspaper Daily News and Jang groups several editions were closed down since they could not face financial pressures.
Outspoken journalists like Asma Shirazi, Hamid Mir and Cyril Almeida among many others known for courageous writing and TV anchoring on the Praetorian politicking are doing rigorous times, living under threat of being picked up at mid night by powers that be who do not like their outspokenness. Christina is absolutely right when she says: “The pressures are the worst in decades and unprecedented for an era of civilian governments.”
What is most depressing is–as Munizee Jahangir says–“You have all the appearance and ingredients of a democracy but it’s not — we are living under martial law and these people have used Imran Khan as a prop.” Indeed, she is right in her observation that: “Their methods have become more sophisticated. It’s very clever. Media is self-censoring. If you want your channel to stay on air, you have to abide. We have three choices — quit, go along with them and don’t touch sensitive subjects or do our job properly and let them mute it.”
As if disclosing his fascist intent of hanging 5000 citizens to cleans the society by Imran Khan’s Federal Minister Faisal Vawda was not enough, PTI social media trollers have spread a wave of terror by hashtaging–on Twitter in Pakistan under a montage of prominent journalists and TV anchors who had criticised Khan or the military. “These are the people who are responsible for chaos, anarchy, manipulation. They are the real enemy of the state,” said one tweet. “Hang them all,” urged another.
This threat is not idle. In January last, an award-winning reporter, Taha Siddiqui known for critical reporting of the government, was on his way to Islamabad airport to fly to London when a car forced his taxi to stop. He was waylaid by armed hoodlums, beaten up and threatened to kill him. Similarly many anti-government bloggers find it hard to stay put in Pakistan. Quite a few of them have taken up asylum in UK.
To what extent authorities have gone could be imagined by the fact that there have been more and more instances when interviews are blocked just when they started telecasting. Former Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif’s daughter Maryam Nawaz’s interview with Nadeem Malik was blocked up soon after it went on air. Earlier to it, Geo’s anchor Hamid Mir’s interview with the former president, Asif Ali Zardari, was taken off air and adverts for biscuits and mobile phones appeared. A ticker tape at the bottom stated: “This interview will not be broadcast today-” was Geo’s announcement.
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi left London scene pricking the conscious of some of the MPs who had been deliberating to question British government’s foreign aid to Pakistan which according to Lord Alton, the crossbench peer who championed the cause of Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian woman held on death row for nine years on blasphemy charges— Pakistan is the UK’s biggest recipient of foreign aid.
“There is a direct link between the prosperity of a country, the strength of its economy, the wellbeing of its people and fundamental freedoms such as freedom of speech and religion,” he said. “In Pakistan these rights are being trampled on daily and we should be raising our concerns. Instead we have poured in £2.6bn over the past decade.” One does not know how would the parliamentary committee that is to investigate UK aid to Pakistan react to ongoing crackdown on free expression and media.
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