EDITORIAL: An old audio clip of PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz has gone viral for its reprehensible content. In it she can be heard telling some people — at the time her father Nawaz Sharif was the prime minster — not to give government advertisements to four media houses, known for airing news and views unsympathetic to her party.

When asked about it at a press conference she had called to berate a former chief justice of the Supreme Court on the basis of two audio clips the veracity of which is questionable, she acknowledged that her audio was authentic. Soon afterwards, in an apparent attempt at damage control PML-N spokesperson Marriyum Aurangzeb issued a statement, claiming that the “conversation was regarding party advertisements”. That claim though was immediately countered by Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry.

Addressing a presser, the minister said during 2015-18, the PML-N media cell headed by Maryam set up at the Prime Minister House gave Rs 18 billion government advertisements to TV channels as well as individual journalists for stories favourable to the government.

According to him, record of the Press Information Department shows that “with the approval of the party’s media cell supervised by Maryam Nawaz, that amount of public money was utilised by the federal and Punjab governments to buy support.” Details of the media houses benefiting from that largesse have also been given out.

Unfortunately, none of this is surprising or new. Since a major chunk of the print and electronic media revenue comes from government adverts, successive governments have been using them as a tool to control independent members of the media, rewarding the pliable ones and punishing those who refuse to toe official line. The practice is not only unethical; it amounts to emasculating freedom of expression — one of the fundamental values of democracy.

Predictably, the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA) and All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) have reacted strongly to Maryam’s admission and Information Minister’s response, saying government adverts should never be used to influence editorial content or to control free speech.

While condemning “all forms of coercion by any government, past or present, that used advertisements as a tool to influence editorial policy”, the PBA has called for making public all media spends of the past 20 years, including the present government’s, also expressing its dissatisfaction with the centralised process under which decisions pertaining to advertisements are made rather than by individual government organisations, departments and ministries.

In a separate statement, the APNS while expressing its “profound concern” also asked the government to release the figures of advertisements issued during the last 20 years. This government should have no hesitation to do that in order to prove that its approach to media freedom is vastly different from its predecessors’.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021


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