By Zubeida Mustafa
AT A time when communication technology has facilitated the flow of information and made it difficult for governments to suppress the dissemination of news, authorities in South Asia are moving against the tide.
They have stepped up their effort to curb access to knowledge and information in a desperate bid to keep the people in the dark. This is a paradox that is difficult to explain.
A recently released publication titled The Fight Goes On: Press Freedom in South Asia 2006-2007, prepared by the International Federation of Journalists, documents the challenges journalists in South Asia have faced. Although erroneously the sub-title speaks of press freedom, the report covers print journalists as well as those working for the electronic and virtual media.
While one can celebrate the fact that the authorities in the eight countries of this region have failed to stifle the press, despite their resort to brutal methods, the question to be asked is: how long can this go on? The IFJ report lists the names and particulars of 143 journalists who were threatened, harassed, kidnapped, physically assaulted or even killed (18 of them) in May 2006-April 2007. Besides many more suffered when their organisation was attacked or there was a clampdown on the media.
This brutalisation of the press by targeting journalists personally is shocking. On the basis of data compiled by the IFJ, in 2006 Pakistan was declared the third most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist in. Four media men were killed in Pakistan during the course of the year. Eight lost their lives in Sri Lanka.
This is a new trend. Previously the “offending” newspaper was penalised for reporting something found to be offensive by the powers that be. It could be in the form of a ban, a fine, imprisonment for the editor or even shutting down the paper. Such measures would have the intended effect of cowing the press.
But now circumstances have changed. The countries where violations of the freedom of the media have taken the most abusive form are the ones where political instability has been most rampant, state repression has been at its worst, the rule of law has virtually vanished and socio-economic conditions have deteriorated to such an extent that state structures and institutions have broken down.
In these conditions journalists have faced threats not just from the government but also from a number of non-state actors such as political parties, terrorist and rebel groups, maverick intelligence agencies and vested interests. In this context, the enemies of the freedom of expression have found it more convenient to single out journalists and prevent them from performing their duties by unleashing violence against them. This has made individuals more vulnerable. Even family members have been attacked.
Pakistan is a good example of how the deteriorating political conditions have hit the media most acutely. Shaky military governments have cracked down on the press and the electronic media the hardest believing that they can set things right by shooting the messenger so that the message does not reach the people. But it does not happen that way any more because today information has its way of reaching the people — thanks to the invention of new technology.
But the media can only expose the wrongdoings of the rulers and inform the people. It cannot actually try the wrongdoer, as a court of law would. Neither can it punish the guilty or provide redress to the victim. These are the functions of a law court, the police and the administration. The fact is that the media can operate effectively only in a democratic milieu when all the institutions are functioning perfectly.
Then why do those governments, which have destroyed institutions such as the judiciary, have reduced good governance to a farce and have destroyed the rule of law, fear freedom of expression? Their biggest fear is that a lively and enlightened media will mobilise public opinion in support of democracy and the rule of law. By educating and informing the people, the press, radio and television can help them sift out the wheat from the chaff and determine what is right and what is wrong.
Before the advent of the private and independent electronic media, print journalism was the only source of information from a non-government source. Considering the low level of literacy in South Asia — cumulatively it stands at 57 per cent but in some countries like Afghanistan it is only 28 per cent — newspapers had limited readerships.
Even today, India which is the most populous of the South Asian states has a newspaper circulation of 203.6 million (20 per cent of the population above 12 years of age). With a proliferation of television channels information now spreads fast and illiteracy is no barrier in the way of access to information.
These are plus points for media freedom. But as pointed out by the IFJ report in its section on Pakistan, journalists need greater economic security to enable them to work confidently and build up a healthy, strong and vibrant media. Better working conditions will also promote greater integrity.
What has not been sufficiently emphasised and in which the IFJ could play a role is in the training and continuing education of journalists, encouraging the journalist bodies to draw up their own code of ethics and working for their self-improvement. The media derives its greatest strength from its own professionalism, integrity and authenticity which allow it to fight against draconian laws on strong moral ground.
The IFJ has rightly observed that there can be no press freedom if journalists exist in conditions of corruption, poverty or fear. The IFJ no doubt provides security to the journalists by extending them international support when they are at risk. But it should also help in improving professionalism in the media, especially in countries where journalists are most threatened.