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Saturday November 27, 2021

Article 19 and threat to media

May 03, 2018

Under the Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan, 1973, every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of the Press, subject to any ‘reasonable restriction’, imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, or in relation to contempt of court or incitement to offence.

Today, media freedom is practically, 'mute', on TV under so called, “self-censorship”, which in reality is, censorship. With the Election-2018 round the corner, the media likes to get both, ‘carrot and stick’, and there may be a ‘silence period’ for the media in election as once happened during 2008.

Just for the record, let me reproduce the notification of Pemra issued on February 16, 2008 with a title, ‘Election-2008 Political Campaign - Media Silence Period’, which says ‘footage or reporting of any political activity, event, personality, candidate or their online comments, interviews shall also be banned in news from 000 hours on electronic media’. This notification was later withdrawn after a strong protest from the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA) and Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ).

So, do we really enjoy the freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of the Press, both, as a citizen and as a journalist, despite Constitutional guarantees, perhaps, not? The Article 19, like many other articles of the Constitution, only guarantees freedom on ‘paper’ but in reality the media remains suppressed not because of ‘reasonable restrictions’ but unreasonable restrictions through unlawful means.

Had the media been brought under ‘reasonable restrictions’ through lawful means, I would not be writing this column on the World Press Freedom Day, and that too at a time when 10 journalists had been killed in one single attack in Kabul on Monday.

What we are witnessing today, is a different kind of curbs on the media. It is called self-censorship but in reality it is censorship as this mechanism comes under instructions. True, freedom comes with responsibility, but, today, we are neither free nor responsible.

Channels can go ‘off air’ any time, newspapers circulation could be disturbed, cable operators push any channel to any number and massive cut in advertisements could take place any time etc and all this without any legal discourse or under the directives from any regulator, which raises the basic question i.e. who is regulating the media today.

So the Article 19 requires a serious review and amendments to protect citizens' freedom of speech and expression as well as the freedom of the Press. There is a need for a forum which could address issues and complaints of either party in case of violation. In case of any action, it should be under the existing laws.

As an important case of ‘Media Commission’, is before the Supreme Court, Hamid Mir and others vs Federation of Pakistan, the court can issue some guiding principles of Article 19 and also Article 19-A, which guarantees the Right to Information.

Since 1973, the Constitution had been abrogated, suspended or put in abeyance time and again; it could not protect itself from usurpers, but even when it is in place successive rulers failed in following the Article 19 in letter and spirit.

The ‘reasonable restrictions’ should also be elaborated so that it should not be misinterpreted by specified or unspecified quarters.

Under the existing law, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) could take action against any channel, programme and anchorperson after issuing show cause and on the directives of Council of Complaints. But in the last few years and even more recently, the cable operators could put any channel off air even without the knowledge or directives of lawful authority. It would we better if Pemra remains as a regulator, licence issuing authority, but not as prosecutor or court, for which a separate independent body is needed.

A dangerous scenario has emerged in places like Balochistan, which is a classical example of how freedom is suppressed. Here journalists from print and electronic media face double pressure. If they published or aired news or statement of any outlawed group or leader, they face cases under the Anti-Terrorism Act, ATA, and if they don’t, they themselves become the news, at time killed by unknown assailants.

One can have difference of opinion about Geo, and its policies and anyone has the right to take the legal course. But in this case too, the channel suddenly goes off air, or pushed back to late numbers. Ironically, both Pemra and information ministry remained clueless.

It is true that the media has to play a responsible role but who will define the word responsibility, media or outsiders. Media needs to have an internal mechanism like editor or editorial board to take decisions not outsiders.

If responsibility means to toe the official line and you become irresponsible, if you defy, it’s a serious issue of freedom of expression.

In 2008, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) had proposed ‘Media Complaints Commission’ headed by a retired Supreme Court judge and comprising members from civil society when Sherry Rehman was the information minister.

The purpose was to protect the freedom of the media and also to bring some kind of check and balance. The PFUJ for years has been demanding strict defamation laws and also questioned the very existence of information ministry.

There are still laws existing under which media’s freedom could be curbed or restricted, journalists could be tried and put behind bar, convicted, but when you faced undeclared ban or pressure or threat, without any legal course, how the Article 19 guarantees or protect the ‘freedom’, both as a citizen and as a journalist.

Journalists and media workers who were once used to be the backbone of struggle for ‘freedom of the Press’, now economically been broken and faced both job and life security. Media has also faced serious charges of being too corrupt and working under one agenda or the other.

In the aftermath of Dawn Leaks, circulation and distribution of leading English newspaper Dawn was blocked in several parts of the country without any lawful action.

In journalism, there are only three ways in dealing with such cases when the story is challenged; (1) newspaper or channel tender apology, (2) issues clarification or contradiction and (3) reporter and the newspaper defend the story and stand by it. The other side also had options under the law.

Neutrality and objectivity have already become a casualty in today’s media. Taking position on certain issue is one thing, ignoring objectivity and showing complete bias for one party is another thing. If the media claims that it is independent, then it is the responsibility of the media to be objective as well.

In the name of reasonable restrictions, unreasonable restrictions, censorship is hurting professionalism. As far as the question of ‘responsible journalism’ is concerned, I believe a journalist should write or speak what he holds in his heart to be true.

The writer is a senior analyst and columnist of Geo, The News and Jang  

Twitter: @MazharAbbasGEO