Thursday, January 23, 2020

Shrinking space for free speech

Farhatullah Babar 

The right to free expression, along with the right to information, after the right to life, is the most fundamental of rights. Meaningful pursuit of any other right, be it rights of women, children, minorities or workers is not possible without the right to free speech.

Article 19 of the Constitution states: “‘Every citizen shall the right to freedom of speech and expression…” and Article 19-A, added as a result of the 18th Amendment states, “Every citizen shall have the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance…”

As a result of proliferation of television channels, and the heated – almost abusive talk shows – sometimes gives a false impression of media freedoms. There is complete freedom to abuse politicians in these talk shows. The extremists are free to purvey hate speech and incite people to violence. But freedom to dissect and dissent with policies unilaterally decided by the state as critical is curtailed in different and new ways.

The system of direct censorship in the past has quietly given way to promoting a culture of self-censorship.

Subjects like turf wars between civil and military institutions, conduct of counter-terrorism operations, the blac khole of internment centres, enforced disappearances and the goings on in the tribal areas are off-limits. Thus, media does not report activities of Pashtun Tahffuz Movement (PTM) because it challenges the security narrative in the tribal areas. There was not a word about its recent public meeting in Bannu and the subsequent arrest of its activists. There is no media coverage of the incidents of law and order periodically surfacing in parts of the tribal areas.

When Taliban commander Mullah Mansoor Akhtar was killed in a drone attack sometime back in Balochistan, the media – despite having the footage – refrained from saying where he was killed. It was only after the Taliban spokesman and President Obama confirmed it that the Pakistani channels showed the footage of the drone attack inside Pakistan.

Media reporting on terror is limited only to the coverage of loss of lives and damages, and not on counter-terrorism operations as that can give rise to many legitimate questions.

Journalists have been protesting against curbs on circulation of Dawn in cantonment areas and other pressure tactics but to no avail. Everyone knows that newspaper circulation in cantonment areas cannot be stopped by a civilian government but no one seemed prepared to say that the garrison state was directly responsible.

A number of factors are responsible for this decline. Corporatization of media houses, erosion of distinction between professional editors and owners and weakening of the culture of resistance journalism are some known factors. Little known factor is the security establishment’s deep inroads in the media industry by building its own media empire. Late Asma Jahangir had petitioned before the Supreme Court to order the government to disclose the number of media outlets run by the ISPR but nothing came out of the exercise due to her death.

In this new model of censorship, where directly approaching journalists is not feasible, the owners are reportedly approached to ‘kill’ undesirable stories and opinion pieces. As the basic instinct of owners is finances rather than public information, their manipulation is not difficult.

The decline of the politics of resistance of yester years is also a reason. Weakening of political parties and weak kneed leaders have contributed to the decline of resistance politics and hence, resistant journalism.

Some recent moves are also puzzling and point fingers.

During the last days of the previous government, reports surfaced that the separate regulatory bodies of media organizations – whether print, broadcast, electronic or social media – are being merged into one regulatory body. The then information minister promptly denied it and even suspended a senior government functionary for initiating a proposal behind her back.

However, recently the present government revived the mysterious proposal of a single media regulatory body. Questions do arise as to who is behind the move – a patently thoughtless, impracticable and provocative move, rejected both by media bodies and the previous government? Suspicions lurk whether the unified command structure of the state is behind the move of a unified media regulatory authority.

At the root of the present state of affairs in the media, however, lies the silent coup that has already taken place in the country. This coup has resulted in the quiet emergence of a de-facto state which not only works at cross purposes with the de-jure and elected state but is also unaccountable. A year ago the de-jure state surrendered before mob violence at Faizabad because the de-facto supported it. It is a different matter that the monster recently challenged the de-facto also.

The army believes, and it may be right also, that it is fighting a hybrid war and media is a force multiplier for winning this war. However the methods employed by it are counterproductive and seems to subtract from the sum total of its efforts.

Countering the militants’ jihadi narrative is not possible without freedom of expression, academic freedoms and abandoning the state of denial. Intellectual infrastructure to counter militant narrative will not be built in garrisons but in universities, colleges and academic institutions and by a free media.

Media will not be free until bodies like PEMRA and Press Commission and organizations like APP, PTV and PBC are freed from direct government control. Private media will not be free as long as commercial interests of owners and not professional journalists determine the news content.

To begin with the Information Commission set up under the Right to Information Law (RTI) should be increasingly put to use as well as to test by journalists, civil society and political activists and a culture of resistance promoted by naming and shaming media outlets that blackout news and views without cogent reasons.


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