The other side of press freedom

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

LAST Wednesday was World Press Freedom Day. Observed every year on May 3, since the UN General Assembly designated it so in 1993, the day has served to remind governments and civil society of the importance of the freedom of expression. It is now universally recognised that a free press plays a vital role in strengthening democratic institutions and fostering development around the world.

Yet the right of access to information and press freedom cannot be taken for granted. In fact if anything the IPI’s World Press Freedom Review 2006 shows how this right is flouted in so many countries of the world. This document covers 188 states which include some of those conventionally considered to be the strongholds of press freedom, such as Britain and the Scandinavian countries. Some skeletons in their cupboards have also been exposed.

Not surprisingly, the report does not really have many flattering things to say about Pakistan which has been listed as a “death watch country”, two journalists having been killed here in the course of the year. In a nutshell, the report observes, “While journalists working in Pakistan have never been able to carry out their profession free of harassment and other dangers, the situation has worsened over the past year.”

The government’s anti-terrorist policy comes under severe criticism because the authorities have used it to justify attacks, even physical ones, against journalists and restrictions on their right to free expression. The law was misused to imprison journalists critical of the government. It describes the “safety of journalists” as a major issue in Pakistan and not just the government but also members of political parties and religious groups have been identified as the attackers of journalists and the media.

In Pakistan the day was observed by journalists, media proprietors and other professionals connected with this sector by holding seminars and meetings. The focus of the speeches was on the degree of freedom the press in Pakistan has managed to achieve over the years. The journalists generally claimed that they have had to struggle hard for their freedom of expression and for easy access to information, yet the press continues to be in chains. Those representing the establishment were vehement in their view that “the government had given complete freedom to the press”.

The truth lies somewhere halfway between these two extremes. Those who have worked in the information and press sector for a long time know that the state of freedom they have today may not be ideal but the situation is certainly better than ever before. Even a casual observer of the scene can testify that the newspapers published in Pakistan in the year 2006 are more lively, candid and brutally frank. The public’s right of access to information has still to be recognised and granted but it must be conceded that the people of this country are certainly being told more than they have ever been told before. The numerous private television channels that have mushroomed and the Internet have opened the floodgates of information — good and bad, right and wrong.

But the basic point that is being missed in the ongoing debate is that press freedom — to whatever degree it has arrived — has failed to ruffle any feathers in Islamabad. The powers that be have come to realise that if they swallow their pride and ego no harm will really come to them if a newspaper cries itself hoarse about misgovernance, corruption, incompetence, ill-advised policies and a host of other evils. All that the rulers have to do is develop a really thick skin and turn the other way without batting an eyelid.

Sometimes a lethargic public relations officer of an agency/organisation that finds itself under attack stirs into action to dispatch a wishy washy rejoinder. But s/he has learnt from experience that it is best to let sleeping dogs lie and let the storm blow over rather than enter into an argument with the press. Besides, the government feels that when the press is allowed to let off its steam the grievances do not build up to burst into the open at an inopportune hour.

Hence, it comes as a matter of deep disappointment and despair for journalists, who have struggled against heavy odds dreaming of another world and believing that they can change the lives of millions, that their words fall on deaf ears. Even though newspaper reports disseminate information and create awareness about the misdoings of the powerful and the inequities of our system, they seem to make no difference. Why? For the simple reason that the democratic structures and institutions of good government are sadly missing in Pakistan.

The parliament, the law and order machinery, the other agencies that can provide relief to the common man are either not functioning as they should or do not exist at all. Under the present chief justice of the country the courts have become active and have started taking note of what appears in the press. But there is too much going on for the courts to handle single-handedly. The fact is that the various institutions that should underpin democracy have developed unevenly in Pakistan. To its credit the press has moved faster than the others and achieved the freedom it enjoys now thanks to the struggle waged by the stalwarts of the profession and also the support they have received from international organisations that have championed the cause of freedom of expression in all countries of the world.

Unfortunately, the bodies that have the capacity to take action on the basis of the information provided by a free press have not developed sufficiently in Pakistan. Frustrating though this situation is, one should not despair. The struggle for press freedom has been a part of the process of the democratisation of the state and society in Pakistan. Unesco has rightly observed, “Freedom of the press should not be viewed solely as the freedom of journalists to report and comment.

It is strongly correlated with the public’s right of access to knowledge and information. Communication often acts as a catalyst for the development of civil society and the full exercise of free expression enables all parts of society to exchange views and find solutions to social, economic and political problems. Free media play a crucial role in building consensus and sharing information, both essential to democratic decision-making and to social development.”

Hence, the struggle must continue though it should now be oriented towards other issues as well such as professional training and excellence, commitment, optimising the use of communication technology for improvement of the work of journalists while resisting corporate “control” of the media, including the Internet.

There is also the need to use the media as an agent to catalyse socio-economic development, to inculcate health education and to change the behaviour and mindset of the people. Politics is important because it determines who will rule the country. The one who rules provides the direction to all policies. But a free press should use its capability to identify the fallacies in the government’s policies with the hope that some administrator with a conscience will give the printed word a thought.