By Zubelda Mustafa
In one of his periodic meetings with newspaper editors , President Ayub Khan tried to draw a reticent Zahoor Husain Choudhury, a senior and eminent journalist and editor of Sangbad, into the discussion. “Choudhury Sahib are you not concerned about freedom of expression in Pakistan?” the Field Marshal enquired.
“Oh yes sir, I am. But I am more worried about freedom after expression,” the witty editor replied. The repartee describes in a nutshell the adversarial state of the Press-government relationship that has been the traditional pattern in this country.
Admittedly, the Press and the government have never been on the same side of the fence in most democratic societies. As the watchdog of public interest, the Press has been cast in the role of a critic of the government’s policies. New genres of journalism, such as investigative reporting, have led the media to unearth the numerous political, financial and social skeletons concealed in many government leaders’ cupboards. Many scandals that have led to the exit of a politician from office have been exposed because the Press was vigilant and pursued them with vigour. Hence it is nothing strange if government-Press relations have been fraught with tension even in countries which have had liberal traditions.
But being adversaries has not meant that the two sides have over-stepped their limits in democratic societies. They as a rule recognise certain norms. The Press operates within a code of ethics which restrains it from resorting to irresponsible and libellous reporting. The government on its part recognises the Press as an indispensable institution — the fourth estate of a free society — whose right to freedom of expression must be respected. As long ago as in 1787, Thomas Jefferson cast his vote for the Press when he wrote: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government. I should not hesitate to prefer the latter.”
Unfortunately, Pakistan has not had a democratic political system for most of the 47 years of its existence. For 24 years it has been ruled with a heavy hand by one military dictator or the other. Even in those periods when the outwards form of democracy were observed, very often freedom was missing. Hence a free Press has not had the chance to take roots in this country.
The Press has been engaged in a long and bitter struggle against the powers that be to win its freedom. The Establishment has not taken kindly to the demand of the Press to be unfettered. It has been sensitive to’ any criticism, however true, and it has also sought to use the media for its self-projection and propaganda.Naturally enough, the Press has resisted playing the handmaiden to those in office and has resented the controls which have been imposed on it through various devices.
These, measures have not been lacking in ingenuity and variety. There were black laws such as the infamous Press and Publications Ordinance of 1963 which gave the government extraordinary powers to crack down on a defiant newspaper to the extent of throwing its editor into prison for printing what the authorities regarded as objectionable. There were administrative measures such as the system of Press advice which enabled even a petty government functionary to order the newspapers to report or black out what he deemed fit or unfit for the public to read.
This was carried to ridiculous extremes as the veteran journalist, that great chronicler of the trials and tribulations of the press, Zamir Niazi, recounts and documents in his book The Web of Censorship. There were economic controls such as newsprint quotas, arbitrary allocation of government advertising and other devices whereby the government could tighten the screw on any paper and squeeze it out of existence or compel it to fall in line. Thus the government would suspend its advertisements to the offending newspaper and also order other public sector agencies to do likewise.
The ultimate weapon was the precensorship, which was used by General Zia-ul-Haq in October 1979 to chain the Press and silence all criticism. For 27 months every paper was required to get each and every word read and cleared by a censor of the Information Department before it could go into print. Any item could be declared to be in violation of public interest and deleted on that ground.
Although Pakistan’s political system has been considerably democratised in the last six years and the Press enjoys relative freedom after expression, to use Zahoor Husain Choudhury’s phrase, the relationship between the Press and the government continues to be strained. This is not the healthy tug of war between the Press and the government one witnesses in democracies of long-standing. The underlying tension does not promote Press freedom. Since democracy in Pakistan is not built on strong foundations it lacks stable institutions and the concept of Press freedom is certainly one of the missing elements.
That would explain why the Press has not been treated well by the governments of the day. In its struggle to retain a modicum of independence the Press has at times had to pay a heavy price. There have been instances of violence and terrorism against the media, with individual journalists being roughed up if not actually killed. Of course it is not always the government which is behind these acts of violence, and major political parties are also guilty of brutalising the Press. Since those in office have shown themselves to be more sensitive to criticism they have also reacted more strongly to it. It is not just a war of words or a battle for the ear of the masses. That would have been fair enough. After all the government has as much right to be heard as the Press has the right to criticise. The problem begins when one of the parties stops playing the game according to the rules. Usually it is the government which plays foul and tries to use its clout to chain the Press and limit its freedom.
All governments in Islamabad have been guilty of this misdemeanour, their loud claim to being champions of Press freedom, notwithstanding. Since the Press and Publications Ordinance was booted out by the Federal Shariat Court, the government has found its powers to curb the Press considerably restricted.Nevertheless, efforts to find other devices are constantly being made.
The latest reports from Islamabad speak of a new ordinance being on the anvil to change the defamation law. This would if actually enacted restrict the freedom of the Press to criticise the government in two ways. First the person making the defamatory statement will be required to prove the truth of the imputation. Under the present law, the person who is defamed has to prove his innocence. A change, of this nature would place the Press at a disadvantage especially because journalists are very often required not to divulge their source of information. If a journalist has obtained his story from classified sources, it will be all the more difficult for him to produce them in a court of law.This amounts to carrying matters to ridiculous extremes. In the US, to establish defamation the aggrieved person is also required to prove actual malice on the part of the-writer. In other words, he must establish that the material was printed with full knowledge of its falsity.
The second change envisaged is in respect of the right to reply. A person who feels that he has been wrongly criticized will have the right to reply and his version of things will be printed in the same place and given the same display as the originally offending item. To ensure that justice is done — this could go to ridiculous extremes such as demanding space in the editorial columns — an ethics committee will be set up by the government. Its credentials as an impartial body will be in doubt from the start.
What has more serious implications is the fact that such measures can create a climate of fear and retribution. All
the government will have to do is to take punitive measures against a paper or two at the most, impose the massive fine of Rs 100,000 to be prescribed under the new law and a precedent will
be set. The Press will be tamed or driven into bankruptcy. Promptly, self-censorship .the biggest curse of the Press in Pakistan will return with a bang, that is if we can consider it to have made its exit from the media scene.
This should be the biggest tragedy to befall Pakistan. The government-Press relations need to be stabilised, not wrecked. It is time the government came round to perceiving the Press as an ally, even when it is highly critical.
Source: Dawn 06 Sept 1994