Press Freedom and Responsibility
The Nation
June 23, 1996
The press is the guardian of man’s right to life, liberty and property. Free flow of information is a must for democracy. The Press must foster a culture of tolerance. It must debate issues vital to people by including every shade of public opinion. That is show people are best informed and their leaders made accountable. The Press must oversee and judge the performance of the State’s three pillars: the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary.

The Press plays these universally agreed roles fully and effectively only when it enjoys freedom. As regards the present state of Press freedom in Pakistan, no one can be a better judge of this than members of the diplomatic community, especially of the democratic Western states. You ask them what their observation of this country is. And the first thing they say is, “Your Press is really free. Newspaper people can write anything, and can go to any extent in criticizing the government or humiliating a politician…”

Beyond any doubt, the Press in Pakistan is freer and much more advanced than that of most of the countries in the Muslim world and South Asia. On foreign policy issues, for instance, media in India tends to project the official point of view—as was the case during and after the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. However, in Pakistan, even if the government makes a positive move on Afghanistan, it is often opposed by the country’s media opinion makers.

At a time when the last of the government owned newspapers in Pakistan has also been privatized, the country’s print media, by and large, enjoys freedom of expression. Since this development has taken place after long spells of martial law, the post-Zia governments have also curbed the freedom of private newspapers and periodicals by restricting advertisement or newsprint.

The freedom of press in the country was first curtailed through the Press and Publications Ordinance (PPO), which was promulgated in 1963 by the military regime of Ayub Khan and which was used by the military regime of General Ziaul Haq. In his initial years in power, it was common to find pages of the newspapers having blank patches made by military personnel in person or through the government’s Press Advices. The PPO disappeared as soon as the Zia rule was over, because of the assertion of democratic forces in the late 80s.

The new Press legislation, the Registration of Press and Publications Ordinance, 1988, was and is far more flexible than PPO. Just look at the number of newspapers and periodicals today, as getting a declaration is not difficult anymore. In a democratic country, it is everyone’s right to bring out a publication. However, when we talk about press freedom, one thing that we cannot ignore is press responsibility. The Press must be free but it must be responsible as well, especially in a country like Pakistan facing grave challenges such as poverty, ethnic cleavages and religious intolerance.

Unfortunately, it is quite common in the media to publish libelous and defamatory reports and articles. Many reports are based on one-sided account. Many of them do not quote credible sources. Then there are news stories which can provoke violence and hurt public feelings. There has to be a mechanism to check sensational snuff in the media. Some of the Urdu eveningers are out rightly spreading encouraging violence. The Press has to be free, but this freedom ha to be complemented with universally-agreed journalistic ethics.

Not to speak of the editorial pages, even the news pages often show partisan tendencies. A newspaper can be liberal or conservative in its editorial policy. However, this does not mean that it should adopt a politically-motivated confrontational stance on issues of vital national importance. Journalism is too sacred a profession to embroil itself in the filth of politics of confrontation. Instead of political statements-based reporting, the journalists need to produce stories which are substantive and focus on how to bring about a real social, economic and political change in Pakistan.

The print media should be a guiding light for the democratic forces in the country. It is only in this way that the media can fight those who terrorize it. Working journalists must unite to safeguard freedom of the Press. And they must unite to rid the media of the miscreants using journalism as a cover to incite people and spread violence. A code of ethics must be devised with the help of the government and the publishers. For the purpose, in 1994, the government had proposed a draft bill, called the Publication or Reply to Defamatory Material Bill, 1994, and the creation of an Ethics Committee. There has been no follow-up on this issue since then. We cannot talk about press responsibility in the absence of a legally-bound ethical framework for the press.