War Against Media

The concept of human security was given by the veteran Mahbub-al Haq. It entails seven factors like food security, health security, personal security, political security, et al; the latter needs some highlighting here. Where political security concerns free and fair elections, people’s right to democracy, it also has an important relation with people’s right to information and ideas, and to express their opinion. Hence, freedom of press and freedom of expression are part and parcel to political security. The extent of freedom of expression is undoubtedly characteristic and symbolic of how democratic and progressive a country is and can be observed by the response a voice of dissent is meted either from the government or the society: whether it is crushed, tolerated or embraced?

The Press Freedom Index 2009 by Reporters without Borders evaluated Pakistan at the lower end of the scale 159 out of 180 countries. This may not surprise many of us, considering the present gagging of Jang group and ARY News in parts of Pakistan after the shoe-throwing incident at His Highness Asif Ali Zardari.

Kudos to PM Yousuf Raza Gillani when he stated, in one of his preliminary speech in the Assembly, that his government stands for free press. However, the current coercion on media is the blatant contradiction of his very words. Yet, this is not the first time happening in Pakistan. This is the oft-repeated episode in this country which is not limited only to dictator rule. Every successive government has toyed with the press freedom. Be it the civilian government of Nawaz Sharif who gagged Jang Group in 1999 leading to a long standby between the two or the Islamization era of Zia-ul-Haq who had the audacity to flog journalists in public or Enlightened Moderation period of Gen. Musharraf who imposed martial law in the country, after which followed a blackout in all media.

Interestingly, two points are common in all these episodes to curb the power of media. Firstly, governments impose restrictions on press always to conceal their own shenanigans, and to strengthen and prolong their rule. The restriction on media always prove to be another faux pas by them leading to the second point in common that the effort to curb is usually the last nail hammered on the coffin to oust the government which the latter perform itself obliviously.

It is distressing that our culture and our governments give little value to the tradition of freedom of expression. What more can be shameful that a ruling democratic government hampers press freedom and that too so daringly and openly?

If PPP claims to bring democracy to the country, then mishandling with press freedom should not be their virtue. Somebody should tell them that democracy and freedom of expression are intertwined notions. Freedom of press is fundamental for the sustenance of democracy and is even more important than free and fair elections because press keeps the electorate informed of the performance of government which is more crucial for democracy than a mere earnest process of elections. But it’s sad to notice that in our country, the freedom of media has been time and again challenged and most of our people seldom fathom its consequences. Whether it’s an in international issue of Draw Muhammad Day, national crises involving government and judiciary at loggerheads, or comic incident of shoe-throwing, our press suffers both from the Machiavellian laws of government and the draconian attitude of society.

However, it is time our leaders take the lesson home that days of repression for media are over now. And that any attempt to control media would backfire. Media is now a power to reckon with and has a considerable and well-recognized niche. Moreover, with the opening of satellite channels, nothing can go inconspicuous and the ruling elite would be living in a fool’s Paradise if they think they can mask their deeds by controlling media.

The recent assail to media in parts of Sindh where PPP has its large vote-bank may have obstructed the news from the masses but it surely has marred the credibility of the government further on the national level. A humble suggestion for the government could be that instead of endeavoring to control the media, rather they should concentrate their efforts to improve the functioning of political administration.

Antagonistically, Free press and government can work in collaboration with each other to enhance each other’s performance and boost the repute of each other. Free press will lend credibility to government’s efforts and initiatives and can create a general goodwill for the government.

However, this should not deter us to say that we still need to work to achieve media that is well-regulated, with its principles and ethics well defined and followed. Media, that work in the best interest of its viewers and the society at large. Media, that follow code of conduct, and exhibit decorum and decency.