Press Freedom Day 2011

Press Freedom Day 2011

“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and one, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind”. (John Stuart Mill “On Liberty”)

Utility of celebrating various days, whether local or international, to reaffirm commitment to their respective causes undoubtedly cannot be denied. But I have often wondered after hearing long speeches: What next? What is to be done? This point is often raised in the discussion held to celebrate World Press Freedom Day.

In 1993 United Nations General Assembly declared 3rd May, as the ‘World Press Freedom Day’ to celebrate the anniversary of the Declaration of Windhoek. The document calls for free, independent, pluralistic media worldwide characterizing free press as essential to democracy and fundamental human rights.

The Declaration of Windhoek is a statement of free press principles as put together by newspaper journalists in Africa during a UNESCO seminar on “Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press” in Windhoek, Namibia from 29 April to 3 May 1991. In addition to practical problems related to the lack of adequate facilities, equipment and training for journalists, the document also enumerates instances of intimidation, imprisonment, and censorship across Africa.

Pakistan is no different when it comes to curbs on freedom of expression. The issues of press freedom are quite similar across the globe. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.”

So let’s now look at the law in Pakistan. Article19 of the constitution says “Freedom of speech, etc. – Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of press, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation, or incitement of an offence.”

In a polity where we have a quasi-democracy, strong autocratic tendencies and violent religious and ethnic intolerance, freedom of expression has been made subject to restrictions’ imposed by laws, whims of the fascist parties and militant groups. While some of the areas like defamation and contempt of court have related laws, many other areas are quite open-ended. And any government can use these clauses to gag the freedom of expression.

The government can retort that this clause is a part of the 1973 Constitution, which was unanimously approved by an elected assembly. They can also rightly claim that no country gives unbridled freedom and freedom of expression has been put under reasonable restriction. The framers of 1973 had instinctively depended a lot on the Indian constitution. It seems that our Article 19 is also inspired by the same with an addition of “glory of Islam,” of course.

Many of the open-ended restrictions have yet to be defined and interpreted by the parliament or the judiciary. But this is a two-edged sword. Given the prevalent conservativism in the higher echelons of the judiciary, there are greater chances that the interpretation of this law would further narrow down the freedom of expression.

Media is well-aware that there are also other ways of intimidation used by the government like using the police for twisting cable operators’ arms to drop a “hostile channel,” using advertisement whip, etc.

In this backdrop the journalists and media owners should brainstorm on the existing laws with the help of some constitutional experts and work on an amendment in the constitution to clip the unlimited powers of the government. PFUJ should take the lead and produce the bill for amendment with the support of the media owners, civil society and political parties. SAFMA has already submitted draft laws.

Perhaps we can take some inspiration from the Danish law, which is the best. It says: “Anyone is entitled to in print, writing, speech to publish his or her thoughts, yet under responsibility to the courts. Censorship and other preventive measures can never again be introduced.”

In the last few years the media has faced the high-handedness and curbs imposed on it by extremist religious and ethnic parties. Many journalists have lost their lives while performing their duty because the militant fascist groups are rampant in the country. This challenge is greater than the government curbs.

In Pakistan affirmative action is needed to defend the freedom of expression of which freedom of media is just a part. It’s about time we should struggle for it without any “ifs” and “buts’ as freedom has no boundaries.

Famous poet John Milton did this in 17th century. His central argument was that the individual is capable of using reason and distinguishing right from wrong, good from bad. In order to be able to exercise this rational right, the individual must have unlimited access to the ideas of his fellow men in “a free and open encounter”. From Milton’s writings developed the concept of “the open market place of ideas.”

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, an 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 or 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.

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 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.” (ayazbabar@gmail.com)

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