Islamabad: Pakistan recently celebrated its 75th Independence Day on August 14 and weeks after its anniversary, the country's media regulatory authority, PEMRA, placed a ban on live telecast of the speeches of Imran Khan, a former Prime Minister. It also blocked YouTube from carrying his speeches.

The ban was a sequel to Khan's thunder at a rally held in Islamabad two days earlier. Ever since he was booted out of power through a vote on the floor of Parliament some four months ago, he has been going around the country 'slandering and threatening' his political opponents, critics, journalists and above all the military, which had helped him realise his political dreams.

Ban on live telecast of his speech amounted to censoring his words, which is neither fair nor proper, as Dawn, the sedate English daily from Karachi, has observed editorially.

PTI leadership has since secured some relief from the courts but that is not germane to our discussion. Nor is the reality that it is not the first time that a popular political leader has been subjected to such restrictions. Politicians 'out of favour' regularly face banishment from TV screens in Pakistan.

One time Karachi strongman, Altaf Hussain of Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) faced a such a ban in 2015. Five years later, as Prime Minister, Imran Khan decreed 'no TV coverage to absconders and proclaimed offenders, to black out Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister and his bete noire, said the Policy Research Group (POREG).

The ban on Khan has come days after the license of a private TV Channel, ARY, was cancelled for airing controversial remarks made by his chief of staff, Shahbaz Gill.

Free speech, especially political speech is the summum bonum of democracy. So is political dissent. Powers that be should settle scores with political rivals politically. Invoking executive power to target political opponents or to curb dissent is an invitation to a repressive police state.

This was the argument, Imran's close aid, Fawad Chaudhry had advanced but it had few takers in the coalition government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.

Expectedly, Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) have gone to the town firing on all cylinders that the Sharif government was curtailing his right to free speech, and censoring him. The claim neither earned him any brownie points nor elicited much sympathy.

Because Imran Khan was not a great champion of free speech both when he led the country to victories on the cricket field and when he held the reins of the country for close to four years.

During Khan's tenure as Prime Minister, censorship of the opposition and its key leaders reached unprecedented levels. Journalists critical of the Army or of Imran Khan himself, found themselves blacked out, reported POREG.

The architecture of Pakistan's media and communications system facilitates censorship and the Khan administration took full advantage of all the legal and executive tools to mute the voice of its opponents.

The Khan regime was rude, crude and brute in its dealing with the media. It did not rely entirely on heavy-handed bans which appear to have become the order of the day these days.

It mostly sought to leverage pressure over the news media - threatening them with dire consequences "if adverse material were to be published, broadcast or telecast, reported POREG.

The punishment was two-fold to cripple a channel. One choke advertisement which the lifeline for the media. Two forced the cable networks to boycott the news channels. More or less identical methods were used to arm-twist the print media as well.

Even the venerable Dawn, a paper founded by the architect of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, found itself unable to distribute in several regions. How can a newspaper survive without being delivered to the doorstep day after day? This modus operandi became the ingenious way to force a media house to do the government's bidding, reported POREG.

With the media ecosystem under financial pressure and several major media houses facing losses, journalists of repute or even of some standing found the going tough. Many of them became victims of what has come to be known as downsizing - a euphemism for liberal pink slips.

Talat Hussain of Geo TV from the Jang group told The Guardian (in 2019) that he was barred by his employers from criticizing Imran Khan or the military. As he persisted with his old-school style of independent reporting, his salary was reduced to the point that he was forced to quit.

Another journalist losing her job as a result of the Khan administration was the news anchor Sana Ijaz of the state-run Pakistan Television, PTV. Her services were terminated. This was the price she had to pay for lending her voice to championing the cause of minority Pashtuns.

For historical reasons, the Balochis and the Pashtuns in Pakistan have been facing brutalities at the hands of the security forces, reported POREG.

Persons seen as trouble makers or as a potential threat to the state simply go missing from either home or the street. Missing persons is a phenomenon unique to Pakistan.

With the army and other security forces brooking no interference in their domain, the civilian leadership and the courts find it helpless to trace the missing persons.

In a recent interview, Ijaz lamented that Pakistan was being transformed into a prison state.

"Pressure is being placed on news channels to avoid negative coverage of the Army or government," she said and added, "independent-minded journalists unwilling to follow the diktat are fired".

This approach of plausible deniability was designed to provide Imran Khan and his administration with a veneer of respectability. Throughout his three and a half year long rule, Prime Minister Imran Khan flatly denied that his government was engaged in any censorship. In fact, his usual refrain was that "Journalists are free to write whatever they wanted".

His Special Assistant of the day on media relations, Dr Firdous Awan was always counter-offensive. "Show me the censorship? Where is censorship? It is all there in the minds of Opposition politicians and journalists", he used to say.

Now cut to the Imran speech ban story. The clause under which the regulatory authority had placed the ban was made a part of the law of the land by the Imran Khan government, reported POREG.

It piloted the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, PECA. And when Imran knocked at the Islamabad High Court for justice, Chief Justice Athar Minallah did not disappoint him. And suspended the ban on the broadcast of his speeches with the observation, "If the PECA were not repealed, everyone would have to be arrested under its provisions".

The court order is a victory for Imran Khan and to the champions of free speech. It is, however, a slap on the face of the Khan government, which had come up with PECA to target free speech, under the guise of 'cyber-crime', 'misinformation' or 'fake news'.

The message that comes from Imran's tryst with free speech is loud and clear. Given the volatile nature of Pakistani politics, it is simply unwise and unrealistic to expect an incumbent Government to refrain from using the restrictive powers in its hands to its own advantage.

It is no surprise, therefore, Khan's successor, Shehbaz Sharif, has not yet thought of dismantling the PECA, reported POREG.

Result? An atmosphere of fear and self-censorship prevails in the Pak media. So is the absence of open discourse in the architecture of Pakistan's media system.

The heavy licensing requirements and the multiple intermediaries (between a would-be speaker on TV/radio and the public) enable a range of pressure tactics to be applied at multiple points thus making the right to free speech a myth in the land of the pure as Pakistanis love to describe their country.

It is pertinent to note in this context that there is rot within the media regulator. Its top functionary, the director general, was dismissed recently after an inquiry established "beyond any reasonable doubt that a female employee had been harassed by him with verbal, vulgar, sexual, and demeaning comments and demands".

It is time for Pakistan to embark upon media reforms to usher in a vibrant, democratic society. Also, to protect free speech and to ensure accountability where speech is found to have been unjustly curtailed!