Imran Khan
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan Image Credit: Twitter/PMO

For someone who does much of his political communication and public relations work through social media and maintains a large media footprint, prime minister Imran Khan has a dismal record of dealing with free speech. His government’s banning of the made-in-China but now worldwide app tik-tok on the plea that it is causing vulgarity is the latest in a string of recent decisions that shrink and truncate media freedom and open him to the charge of being anti-democratic. While the ban is technically slapped by the Pakistan Tele-Communications Authority but PM Imran has been fulminating against the app and has spoken about the need for its regulation.

The causal connection between tik-tok and the nation’s threatened morals is not known. Except for the cheaply dramatic suggestions contained in the products of some female users who deploy their camera shots or videos with national celebrities to gain instant fame, there has not been a cataclysmic controversy to cause officialdom to worry about mauled public sensibilities.

If anything, the app has been a somewhat revolutionary change in the otherwise dull and stressful lives of millions who have no outlet to express themselves. Artists, rappers, teachers, mimics, students, vendors of local products — drawn mostly from the lower-end of the social pyramid and located in the hinterlands of Pakistan’s digital sphere — have taken to this easy-to-use platform to make a statement about themselves. Examples abound when people from nowhere shot to instant fame and drew millions of likes and views in no time. This outreach speaks to the public endorsement of this digital facility rather than its aversion to and rejection of it.

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The real problem is therefore not that the nation is being morally corrupted by tiktok but that it has become in its own way a unique platform of political expression, critique and dissent. Khan’s lofty statements and unfulfilled promises are a favourite subject on the platform where he is dissed and deprecated, mostly in good humour but sometimes rather crudely. One famous duo uses PM Imran’s oft-repeated threats to inflict terrible doom upon the opposition in the context of the impact of his government’s policies on the people and creates the impression as if he is bent upon uprooting the lives of the poor.

On a banning spree

Hundreds of such politically-poignant and straight-from-the-heart memes, themes, videos and animations fill the void of covering trends in the national mood which regular media outlets fail to capture. The government hates it. As a close aide of the prime minister admitted in a deep-background conversation for this piece, “TikTok is ticking us off by constantly talking against us.” Most of the federal cabinet members that I spoke to on the subject did not approve of the ban but said that social media is unkind to the government.

This perception in official quarters of being treated unfairly by media platforms is not confined to tiktok or other digital outlets; the Imran government has a wider problem when it comes to coexisting and coping with dissent. That explains why the TV-licence issuing Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) has been so hyper active under the Imran government.

While there is no quantitative increase in public complaints on which the body supposedly can take action against an offending TV channel, Pemra has been on an unprecedented banning binge. Recently, licenses of 4 channels were suspended for violating Pemra codes of conduct, which are so broad that anything under the sun can be used as a breach of rules.

Suppression of speech

Generally, channels are taken off air as an extreme measure but that’s how it was previously done. Now it is almost certain that a so-called show-cause notice that mentions the “charges and defines the case” will be followed by a ban that can last months. Consider this: Last month Pemra issued notice to Channel 92 for running news related to the prime minister Imran’s direction to the federal cabinet on not contacting armed forces directly. Pemra said that this news was fake. The body has also issued show cause notices to ARY, Dunya TV, 24 News, Public TV & GTV for airing “false” news regarding suspension of Pakistani pilots and engineers working abroad. Dawn News got a notice for airing “fake” news regarding the British Prime Minister. The diversity of the causes that prompt these notices is striking.

Bear in mind that Pemra at core is a market regulatory authority, which means that its main concern is to ensure that media cartels and conglomerates don’t undermine the level playing field required to ensure healthy competition for better content flow for public consumption. But under the present government, it is operating like a censor-board and a content manager. Note the type of guidelines Pemra has issued to TV channels.

Moharram processions coverage, Ramadan coverage, COVID-19 coverage, Motorway rape case coverage, absconders’ speeches coverage etc. Recently a biscuit ad caused Pemra to issue an advisory reminding channels of showing moral restraint. The advertisement showed shots of dance by a famous female artist, who ironically is a recipient of a Medal of Distinction and is often seen posing as more patriotic than thou through her posts. Clearly, the ban-them-all-except-me policy is now acquiring a life of its own.

The print media too has not escaped this censorship spree. Journalists’ unions from across the country now paint a bleak picture of media freedoms even as the prime minister continues to insist that Pakistan’s media is the freest in the world. The problem it seems is not about any platform or app; it is really about a nation wanting to speak to a government that wants to hear or see no evil about itself.

Syed Talat Hussain is a prominent Pakistani journalist and writer. He tweets at @TalatHussain12