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January 16, 2019
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Asia Bibi verdict: How the entire Pakistan media was censored?

KARACHI: I was having a cup of tea with the owner of a TV channel in their offices located in Karachi, Pakistan. The monitoring television in his office was showing news of Grand Prix racing tournament at prime time on a day when the Supreme Court gave a historic judgement that affected the sentiments of millions of people in the country; and also the ‘life’ of a Pakistani citizen, who identified herself as part of a minority community.

The judgement was in favour of Asia Bibi – death penalty conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Few hours after the verdict was announced, protests erupted in major cities of Pakistan and members of religious organisations like TLP caused havoc across the country.

The matter was very very sensitive, and the news directors and anchors inside these TV channels and newspapers understood that very well.

However, journalists and employees were not allowed to report a single ticker, news or analysis on the Asia Bibi case during the day.

A night before the verdict was announced by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, a WhatsApp message was sent by Chairman PEMRA to senior news anchors and director news of all TV channels, which read as follows:

WhatsApp message from Chairman PEMRA to all senior anchors, director news and owners of television channels a night before the Supreme Court verdict was announced.

TV channel owners, senior anchors and directors took ‘full ownership’ of the instructions issued by Chairman PEMRA (although through unofficial channels), and some even took the liberty of forwarding this message internally to their teams via official email communication.

The WhatsApp message received from Chairman PEMRA was circulated inside some news organisations to all staff using official email communication.

These instructions were enforced in full spirit by each and every person on the news desk to reporters to senior anchors the day verdict was announced, and media did a complete blackout of any reactions that occurred on the streets of Pakistan – putting a veil between the reality and the people of Pakistan.

When I spoke to few people who were not related to the media industry, they welcomed the decision to censor the ‘unjustified’ protests by ‘some extremist elements’ in the society and termed it as a wise decision by media, even though it was enforced by PEMRA and higher authorities, and not internally debated by people who run the show.

They were of the opinion that a decision by the highest court of Pakistan should be respected, and Asia Bibi should be set free, as she had been acquitted from all charges.

It looks like PEMRA and other authorities who control Pakistani media have been exercising censorship on a need basis for the past few months to manage the behaviour and reactions of the uneducated masses in Pakistan, and it seems to be working.