US Judge Gurfein in a decision rejecting government efforts to bar publication of the Pentagon Papers, said that we have “a cantankerous press, an obstinate press, ubiquitous press,” and that these tribunes of the people “must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know.”
Suffering freedom of press when it goes against one’s own interest is a democratic virtue. Unfortunately it is hard to find in our culture. As a result of the long drawn struggle for freedom of press in this country, which has been heroically led by the working journalists, the print media’s independence is now more and less tolerated by the establishment. But it seems that they have yet to learn to live with the more powerful cousin – the independent electronic media.
Once again the journalists of Pakistan are on the streets to defend the hard earned freedom of media. The latest onslaught on the electronic media was the promulgation of an Ordinance on last Monday by the President. It injected a number of amendments in the PEMRA law, although the National Assembly was due to meet on Wednesday, irrespective of the democratic norm that an ordinance is only issued by a president on the recommendation of the prime minister when the national assemblies are not in session and the matter is urgent. Interestingly in this case there was no cabinet meeting and no recommendation from the prime minister who is supposed to be the chief executive. (Perhaps, the only time the poor President ‘was obligated’ to follow the Prime Minister’s bidding in the last few years was when he fulfilled his constitutional duty of rubber-stamping and posting CJP’s reference).
Let’s see why the government is so upset with the electronic media lately in Pakistan. The present government takes well-deserved pride in the fact that they opened up the electronic media to the private sector, which was a sacred area in the past. Soon after the Kargil adventure the government started feeling that they had lost on both the diplomatic and the propaganda front. I heard many high level government officials and ministers lamenting this fact. It was felt that we should also have private channels in Pakistan like India. The first private channel was launched with the backing of the Shaheen Foundation. Availability of modern satellite technology allowed this channel to uplink from Hong Kong, thus bypassing the government’s antiquated regulation and inertia. All curbs on restricting the private sector from entering the television business were thus beaten by the new technology.
The government then had to follow and bring in the law on which there were some initial discussions in Ms. Bhutto’s time. To be fair it can be said that the present government did accept the need and technology dictation gracefully and allowed over 40 private channels. They proudly took this credit and enjoyed basking in the spotlights of many cameras.
They also digested TV channels news and views against the establishment but not without occasional interference and behind the camera arm-twisting. This tolerance was backed by the confidence of the government in its strength and the fact that there was minimum political movement out on the streets. But as the government started feeling weaker and isolated after the 3/9 hara-kiri and the ‘black coat movement’ gathered strength, opposition was forced out from drawing rooms to the street, and the television coverage started becoming unpalatable for the top bosses.
It is a generally accepted fact that weaker and shaky governments fear the press freedom. Pakistan is no different. This attitude is explained by Noam Chomsky in his paper Democracy and the Media: “the criticism of the media for their adversarial stance can only be understood as a demand that the media should not reflect the range of debate over tactical questions among dominant elites, but should serve only those segments that happen to manage the state at a particular moment, and should do so with proper enthusiasm about the causes – noble by definition – in which state power is engaged.”
The government’s media managers should know that in this day and age curbs on press freedom are meaningless as technological development in the last three decades have broken all barriers and bunkers the establishment likes to build. Even the opposition leaders, who spoke in favour of media and against the government for obvious reasons, were off the mark and self-contradictory. At least two top PPP leaders said that while the government is putting curbs on the national TV channels, they have allowed “vulgarity’ and Indian channels. What vulgarity are they talking about, joining the MMA chorus? And why Indian channels should not be allowed if people want to see them? Please stop being patriarchal!
The centrality of individual freedom and ‘the reach of individual freedom’ for democracy must be acknowledged by the champions of democracy, whether in the government or in the opposition. Remember what Noble laureate Amartya Sen said: “Development consists of the removal of various types of unfreedoms (emphasis mine) that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency. The removal of unfreedoms … is constitutive of development.” (firstname.lastname@example.org)