Current pressures on the Pakistani press make it worthwhile to explore the authoritarian mindset underlying these curbs on media freedom. Although the army and its intelligence agencies are particularly intolerant when it comes to press freedoms, traditionally, civilian governments in Pakistan have also had a mercurial relationship with the media. All of Pakistan’s democratic ‘heroes,’ from the Bhuttos to the Sharifs, have attacked and degraded media institutions while claiming to be patrons of freedom.
The story of the Pakistani press is one of constant struggle against unjust suppression and oppression. The state’s strategy for emasculating press freedoms was, however, written long ago, before independence. In a definitive history on the topic, Zamir Niazi’s ‘The Press in Chains’ notes how the British colonial government was hostile to any critique by the ‘natives.’ In order to stymie debate, iniquitous laws were introduced, such as the requirement for obtaining expensive licenses from the British Raj, with heavy fines for those violating press regulations. The aim was twofold: to control content in the existing press, and block the development of smaller independent publications that were popular at the time.
Historically, the indigenous Pakistani press was particularly targeted, often being accused of supporting sedition and hatred. At the same time, the English-language press served as apologists for colonialism, perpetually siding with the British in their attempts to pacify India. For example, after the Indian War of Independence in 1857, Niazi writes that the Governor General of the time, Charles Canning, “condemned the Indian newspapers and complimented the European Press for their loyalty and intelligence.” Hatred for dissent meant any newspaper that had the audacity to question or comment on British atrocities in India was swiftly condemned for, of all things, supporting terrorism (!). For instance, while introducing the Press Act of 1910, the British bureaucrat Herbert Risley said:
We are at the present moment confronted with a murderous conspiracy whose aim is to subvert the government of the country and to make British rule impossible by establishing general terrorism. Their organisation is effective and far-reaching; their numbers are believed to be considerable: the leaders work in secret and are blindly obeyed by their youthful followers.
Effectively, questioning dominant narratives was automatically equated with supporting terror or rebellion, a leap of logic regularly used by present day Pakistani rulers to curtail freedoms of expression. A tactic perfected by the British Raj, the approach still informs Pakistan’s own treatment of its citizens.
Britain’s colonial authoritarian template toward the press was replicated and expanded after independence, until, ironically, a liberalization of sorts was finally achieved under the dictator General Pervez Musharraf. In its modern incarnation, Pakistan’s press and media is divided into two spheres, the English and the Urdu. The English press is read by the country’s small elite, and tends to mirror and conform to narratives spun in London and Washington. The vernacular / Urdu press is more eclectic in its approach and appeals to a broader swath of society. In this way, the historic dichotomy between a pro-Western English press and a hostile ‘native’ press is alive and well in Pakistan.
This is particularly interesting in light of how ‘liberal’ parts of Pakistani society regularly condemn the vernacular press for its ‘reactionary’ and ‘backward’ analysis of the crises facing Pakistan. Publications such as The Friday Times, for example, lampoon local Urdu papers by presenting selective stories under the banner “Nuggets from the Urdu Press”. The column’s content is reflective of typical elitist scorn for the religious and nationalist views of Urdu publications, accompanied by caricatures mocking the reproduced stories. Such commentary effectively reinforces the self-perceived superiority and enlightenment of the English-speaking classes.
For their part, the Urdu newspapers condemn the pretentions of the English language media, dismissing them as nothing more than Macaulay’s Children , an allusion to the notorious Thomas Macaulay, who advocated for the liquidation of local cultures as a way for Britain to more effectively rule India. The quality of the Urdu press varies greatly, with outright conspiracy theories and religious dogmatism often substituting for critical analysis of the state and its many failures.
As a result of the state’s basic hostility to a free press, both the English and Urdu media are often reflexively hostile to any thinking that does not conform to their point of view and lamentably uncritical when it comes to their own biases. This lack of maturity is a symptom of the state’s long running policies toward the press, which have long and deep roots in the subcontinent.