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VIEW: ‘Press—Amendment’

PUBLISHED IN THE POST AS FREEDOM OF THE PRESS JULY 03, 2007

Free press is multi -dimensional; it anchors democracy in the civilized world, preserves the semblance of democratic systems elsewhere, and could serve as an independent reformer of society; therefore, its longevity is desirable and a well governed, better regulated setup critical.

Now that the impressive credentials of a free press have been established, we can move on to its fate in our society.

Where we stand today regarding the state of journalism manifests itself in the form of events that, from a distance, indicate widening fissures in press freedom land. Pakistan’s ranking in terms of press freedom comes at a dismal 157 in 2006 down from 119 in 2002 ; a questionnaire considering actions taken against journalists and media outlets censored, seized or ransacked provides the press freedom index. The events of 2007 suggest that we may be headed further South in press freedom land.

While the track record of this government, in terms of granting press freedom, had been creditable thus far, little wonder then that hints at retraction of liberal policies or possibility of reinstatement of dated oppressive ones left people uneasy about the fickle definition of laissez-fair practiced in Pakistan. Orders to seize, fine, seal and suspend culprit channels have mercifully been rescinded; countermeasures against spin and undue bias on the other hand, has prompted the launch of a ‘code of conduct’ creating yet another flurry. Rules, however, are lesser of the two evils; in fact most societies deem them a necessity and the free spirited press of the civilized world ardently practice self regulation.

A closer examination reveals that the present status of journalistic freedom in Pakistan can be gauged more in terms of quantity than quality of broadcast channels. Today 48 odd channels have taken over the airwaves; they dominant the local satellite news dissemination department perhaps because the original(sycophant) pet network, pompously serenades the state but unlike FOX TV, fails to make it entertaining. The influence of privately owned media channels cannot be disputed, but some people, after seeing the treatment of the recent crisis, have found unkind parallels between media practices of today and the monkey with a machine gun.

Freedom for the more amateur media outlets has translated into providing a stage to launch in rancorous debates with political adversaries, voicing a stream of invectives against State oblivious of the libel laws and giving an unfiltered coverage of violent breakdowns in law and order. Whether it is a show put on for ratings or something more sinister, untamed media, that can reshape perception, is a formidable force to reckon with.

Finally the State could no longer feign indifference to the ‘weapons of mass conversion’ wielded by mainstream media, it challenged their objectivity and while their original heavy-handed approach continues to rankle, the resultant effect is that our media now has to reconcile itself with the fact that power does not absolve it from responsibility and prepares to make the necessary adjustments.

Restraint has been imposed on certain aspects of reporting but media is also expected to be self regulatory and the contents of an official code will soon be divulged. Who knows, guidelines may actually prevent this watchdog from turning into a vicious hound dog.

Repressing free speech will never be viewed kindly but having said that, there is nothing wrong with a ‘code of conduct’ that will ultimately prevent the ignorant, immature or avaricious elements in the media, if they exist, from fermenting accidental (or otherwise) strife within society. The other side of argument, made on a local news channel stands that when information flow is checked, disinformation seeps out.

There’s no visible change since the crackdown; anti government statements appear all the time in prominent dailies, partisan voices have not been silenced in the media and the fixation on CJ issue is unabated albeit in a subdued manner.

While there is a way to quantify press freedom, however, none exist to quantify press objectivity, but watchdog groups like MRC-Media Research Centre and FAIR, to name a few, have been active in exposing bias, sensationalism in the US media for the world is as prone to sensationalize as we are. As to who can challenge inaccuracy and pinpoint bias in the ‘rookie’ Pakistani media? There has been a suggestion that senior journalists, ex-judges, senior officials serve on a surveillance team to guide the uninitiated on national priorities with the proviso of sound editorial policies practiced by media moguls to chart Media’s future course. The case against press freedom is strong but media has always been subject to a degree of restraint; granted that there may be no formal media censorship in democracies like USA, they show zero tolerance for those questioning their patriotism.

Bill Maher hosts ‘real time’ on HBO now but antipatriotic sentiments on his previous late night talk show ‘politically incorrect’ cost him the show . Veteran war correspondent Peter Arnett, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his Vietnam War coverage, criticized the Iraq War Plan on Iraqi state TV” and lost his job. Then there’s Ann Coulter, at the other end of the spectrum who does get airtime on American national television but has been fired from networks for vicious personal attacks.

Censorship issues also abound; the worst riots in France were given superficial coverage by French broadcasters in 2005, ostensibly to avoid further goading the rioters or playing into the right wing politicians hands. British broadcasters endured a 6 year ban (1988-1994) that prevented them from airing ‘direct speeches’ from 11 Irish organizations. In 2001, major news networks like CBS, ABC, FOX, NBC and CNN convinced themselves that their national security and public interest lay in acceding to their Secretary of State request in curtailing coverage of Bin Ladens taped messages; statements like "In deciding what to air, CNN will consider guidance from appropriate authorities." further illustrate the picture.

By contrast, the leader of a dissident madrassa in Pakistan keeps appearing on media to justify acts of sedition and violence. Scathing observations are made concerning the sluggishness of ongoing search and rescue efforts in devastated coastal areas of Pakistan during the storm season as the relief agencies and armed forces battle impossible weather conditions. The presence of cameras sometimes appears correlated to the level of violence during crisis hours (power riots for instance) and the bright smiles of some agitators seen toppling structures make one wonder if their actions are more motivated by the 3 and a half minutes of fame. And flashing images of ‘injured ’ women

Somewhere underneath all this lies good reporting and makes its presence felt now and then.

That the national interest is best served when media cheers our progress while stopping to point out flaws is a given; however, the sheer impropriety of denouncing actions of a nation in distress or deep focus on the marginal rather than essential and sensationalism over substance will ultimately invalidate the effectiveness of this watchdog. Such an event will neither be in the public’s interest nor the States. Then again, state sponsored censorship could be the surest way to commit political ‘Hara-Kiri’.

Seen in the context of emerging threats and changing priorities, possibly some democratic systems have become increasingly intolerant of dissenting voices, but few take kindly to irresponsible journalism and all place their national interest supreme. The cases quoted above merely show that the censorship trend is not an isolated incident but part of a global phenomenon. The difference, perhaps, lies in subtlety (we just don’t have any); so If we could only bear in mind that casual potshots at medias freedom might be easy to forgive but napalming them will be impossible to forget.

Images Courtesy of: http://files.coloribus.com/files/adsarchive/part_177/1779555/file/free-press-free-press-for-free-people-small-55073.jpg

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