Can Nawaz Sharif improve media freedom in Pakistan?

The third-time prime minister has the opportunity to make the news media work for everyone

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif addresses his supporters in Lahore, May 11.
(Image credit: AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

Less than 48 hours before Pakistan's historic democratic elections on May 11 — which saw former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif re-elected — Pakistani police gathered at the Islamabad home of New York Times correspondent Declan Walsh. They had Walsh sign for a letter from the interior minister, which informed him that his visa had been canceled because of his "undesirable activities." Walsh, an Irish national who had reported from Pakistan for nearly a decade — and is one of the most respected foreign correspondents — had three days to leave the country.

The irony was lost on no one. While elections give Pakistan the veneer of transparency and just democracy, the country's governing institutions often seem more comfortable with autocracy.

We don't know exactly why Walsh was forced to leave. Pakistani officers told him he was an "anti-state element," but the Pakistani government has rebuffed the Times' repeated requests for an explanation. The expulsion of a Western journalist from any country almost always makes headlines in the West. Such a move can signal intolerance for accepting the truth. For the government that banishes the Western journalist, however, the move can sometimes be a frustrated response to reportage that it perceives as unfair.

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The curious thing about Pakistan, though, is that its own news media is awash with critical reportage and editorializing. Journalists relentlessly seek to shame government leaders. Yet they do so carefully.

That may be because Pakistan is one of the most hostile countries to journalists worldwide. It ranked 151 out of 173 in the 2011-12 Press Freedom Index. Fifty-two journalists have been killed there since 1992; 28 of them were murdered. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there is rarely an investigation or trial to bring those who kill reporters to justice. The gruesome 2001 beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl received international attention, but the majority of journalists killed in Pakistan are Pakistani. In the past 16 months alone, 11 Pakistani reporters have been killed.

The last time Nawaz Sharif was in power, in 1999, Pakistan's broadcast media was firmly under state control. Three years after Gen. Pervez Musharraf ousted Sharif in a military coup, he freed the broadcast media. Geo, the first private television station, promptly began to criticize Musharraf and his administration, making up for decades of suppression and establishing an attack-dog theme for broadcast news.

And the people are watching. Roughly 20 television news stations exist in Pakistan, and because the rate of illiteracy in the country is at 55 percent, television has become the most popular news medium. The increase in broadcast media venues has also meant a sharp jump in the number of journalists. In 2002, before private electronic media, there were roughly 2,000 journalists in Pakistan. Today, there are approximately 17,000. The more government leaders lambaste the press, the more popular and significant it becomes with Pakistanis. In 2012, 68 percent of the Pakistani public trusted the news media, while 76 percent had a negative view of their civilian government.

In my doctoral study for Columbia University, on the state of Pakistani journalism from 2010 to 2012, dozens of Pakistani reporters told me that the danger for journalists in the country comes from its volatility. While the news media is maturing, it relies on extremism and sensationalism to grab ratings, reeling in the people, who are concerned with their security. The security apparatus has the public's overwhelming support — 77 percent of Pakistanis say they trust the military. As the most respected part of the government, the military is thus rarely criticized in the media. Pakistani journalists are also hesitant to take on fundamentalist groups out of fear for their own survival. That leaves politicians, civilian government officials, and India and America as media targets. And the Pakistani civilian government seeks to assert control over local and foreign media wherever it can. Expelling Walsh was likely an example of that.

The outgoing administration has been incredibly passive about this extremism in Pakistani news. Pakistani politicians do not often use the press to oppose fundamentalism or to promote social causes. Instead, Huma Yusuf, a columnist for the Pakistani daily newspaper Dawn, wrote in June 2012, they "use media appearances to raise their individual profiles and trigger political storms. Their time on air is about being argumentative rather than developing and sustaining a coherent argument around a relevant issue; it's about reactive politicking rather than proactive, issue-based politics." She continued, "The impetus to earn legitimacy for political action by winning public support — in other words, representative politics — does not yet exist."

Nawaz Sharif has an important opportunity to both further media liberalization and help change public discourse in Pakistan. Dozens of television news stations and hundreds of radio stations and newspapers helped to amplify his political platform. Now they will surely scrutinize his tenure as prime minister. He should allow them to do so, while also working diligently to promote the need for improved infrastructure and government reform. One of those reforms should be the protection of media freedoms and of journalists' lives and livelihoods — which would also mean welcoming back Walsh.

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Katherine Brown has a PhD in Communications from Columbia University's School of Journalism, where she studied wartime media in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the U.S. She is also a Truman National Security Project Fellow.