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In Defense of Free Press in Pakistan

“I disagree completely with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (Voltaire)

No authoritarian or corrupt government can afford a free press or an independent judiciary. Both are under attack in “democratic” Pakistan today.

The government move to establish Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA), a Draconian law, through an ordinance, will have disastrous impact on print and electronic media. It is also in conflict with article 19 of the Constitution which guarantees freedom of speech and expression and will almost certainly be shot down by the Supreme Court.

Authoritarian and corrupt governments have never been very comfortable with Geo. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalist (PFUJ) has condemned the move to take senior journalist and anchorperson Hamid Mir off the air. Capital Talk anchored by Hamid Mir is a popular program watched by millions of people in Pakistan and abroad.

Flashback to March 16, 2007, Friday night, was the ‘Night of Broken Glass’ in Islamabad. On that day, General Musharraf declared war on the freedom of press. Qui deus vult per dere, prius dementat (whom the gods would destroy, first they make mad). About two dozen stormtroopers of the Punjab police were unleashed to attack and ransack the offices of Geo TV channel in an effort to stop the channel from airing live pictures of police brutality against protesting lawyers. They smashed the windows, leaving the rooms covered in a deep layer of broken glass – a grim reminder of the ‘Reich Crystal Night” on 9-10 November 1938 in Nazi Germany.

I went to see the Geo office. I felt ashamed and blushed to see the office ransacked and its staff, including Hamid Mir, terrorized for doing nothing more than telecasting vital information. The people of Pakistan were appalled. The print and electronic media articulated their sense of outrage, their horror, their distaste and their shame at what had happened.

Freedom of press is one of the bulwarks of modern civilization. Newspapers are the cement of democracy. Freedom from government control, direct or indirect, is essential for a democratic society. Of all the sentries posted by the constitution of a free country to stand guard over its freedoms, the most vigilant is the media. If it is removed, or hoodwinked, or thrown in fetters, arbitrary power and slavery take over. It is then too late to think of preventing or avoiding the impending ruin.

500 years before the birth of Christ, the Greek city – state of Athens became the first society in recorded history to embrace the notions of freedom and democracy. It was an experiment that went horribly wrong. After a short spectacular period of success, the Athenian democracy collapsed. Athens lost her supremacy and with it, many of her freedoms. Why? The men who ruled the city fell into a state of collective hysteria which bears an uncanny resemblance to the paranoia which seems to have gripped this government. At the height of the crisis, those who ruled Athens forced her most famous philosopher to drink hemlock, solely for the crime of expressing his opinion. It was a miscarriage of justice that still fills mankind with baffled fascination.

“The duty of a journalist”, the legendary Delane of the London Times wrote long ago, “was to obtain the earliest and most correct intelligence of the events of the times, and instantly, by disclosing them, to make them the common property of the nation”. The article went on, in words engraved on the heart of every young journalist: “The press lives by disclosures. We are bound to tell the truth as we find it, without fear of consequences – to lend no convenient shelter to acts of injustice and oppression, but to consign them at once to the judgment of the world”.

Today I know no country in the civilized world, in which, speaking generally, there is less true freedom of press than in Pakistan. The government has enclosed thought within a formidable fence. You are free inside that area. Woe to the man or woman who goes beyond it. “Our worst danger”, Hamilton wrote, “comes from dependent judges and from stifling the press. We ought to resist it”.

“The basis of our government”, Jefferson once famously said, “being the opinion of the people… were it left to me to decide whether we should have government with newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to choose the latter”.

The press is, par excellence, the democratic weapon of freedom. News, independently gathered and impartially conveyed, is an indispensable commodity in a society where the people rule themselves. Without the free circulation of news, there could be no free press and without a free press, there can be no free democracy. As Rebecca West put it, people need news for the same reason they need eyes – to see where they are going.

Independent media, the world over, serves as a watchdog to challenge and expose even the richest and most powerful holders of public office in the country. It digs up shady deals involving holders of public office and publicizes the result for the enlightenment of the people. Media is a check on the arbitrariness, illegalities and excesses of the executive in all democratic countries.

News allows people to judge for themselves whether the people they voted into office merit their trust. News is essential to ensuring that people know what their soldiers are doing in Waziristan or Baluchistan, as much as what their politicians are doing in their boudoirs.

If government is to be valued because it is accountable to the people, free and independent news media are essential to that process. That is why Thomas Jefferson, the primary drafter of the American Declaration of Independence, insisted that the U.S. Constitution include the public's right to free speech, a free press, and public assembly. That is not to say that newspapers were kind to him when he became the President. He had his share of embarrassing exposés. But Jefferson remained steadfast in supporting even painful scrutiny by the media, because he recognized that without such accountability and unfettered flow of ideas, a nation's creative growth is stunted and its people are not free.

The freest and fairest societies are not only those with independent judiciaries, but those with an independent press that works day and night to keep government accountable by publishing what the government might not want the public to know.

Don’t gag the press, Mr. Prime Minister. You will have to pay a heavy price if you alienate the forth state. President Ayub Khan tried to gag the press with disastrous consequences for himself. Don’t listen to yes men and soldiers. Follow Jefferson. Support even painful scrutiny by media as Jefferson did. You will never regret it.