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October 10, 2018

Don’t be shy of the truth


October 10, 2018

According to a 19th century legend, Truth and Lie met one day and agreed to swim in the pond together. However, Lie, seeing that Truth was enjoying itself in the water, quickly came out and after putting on Truth’s clothes, ran away. Truth has been looking everywhere since then to find Lie and get its clothes back. The world, however, seeing the naked Truth, turned its gaze away with contempt and rage.

As the legend goes, Truth returned back to the pond and disappeared forever, hiding its shame. Since then, Lie goes around the world dressed as Truth, “satisfying the needs of society, because the world harbours no wish at all to meet the naked truth”. Perhaps, because of this, the government of Pakistan has come up with the idea of having a Twitter account for the purpose of exposing false news on the social media.

Fake news is not something new; unfortunately, it has always had a huge impact on society. In 1475, a lie was published that Jews had murdered a child and drunk his blood. The entire Jewish population in Trent, Italy was arrested and tortured. In the US in 1874, thousands fled their homes in panic after a false story was published that animals had broken out of Manhattan Zoo and were on a killing rampage. Orson Welles used the radio to broadcast untrue bulletin that aliens had invaded, and total mayhem followed.

As long as there was only print and electronic media, people could verify the authenticity of stories appearing in tabloids and media channels from newspapers and channels that were genuine and well-reputed. But with the advent of the internet, the potential repercussions of counterfeit ‘news’ are enormous. The problem has been further compounded because traditional mediums (news, TV & radio) struggle to combat accuracy with the need to give news promptly. Truth suffers and the professionalism of a journalist (who is supposed to verify the fact) is sacrificed at the altar of the need to be first to give ‘breaking news’. Often, media outlets are forced to publish ‘internet’ stories – only to find out that the news is bogus.

What is worse is the intentional creation of false news to influence a particular agenda or to damage a country’s image. Countries like Pakistan, which are continuously building up their image as modern states, are most vulnerable to false propaganda. By publishing fake information regarding the Kalabagh Dam, CPEC or child labour being employed in various industries etc, Pakistan’s reputation is tarnished, which also hurts its economy. It is true that fake news is accelerating and affecting the ways individuals interpret daily developments, creating prejudices and inciting religious violence even in Western countries. Who knows, fake news may have been responsible for Hillary Clinton’s loss in the US presidential elections.

For all these reasons, there is a strong argument that social media which is disseminating information harmful to the national interest of a country must be stopped – even if it means curbing peoples’ right to know. The proponents of this view say that the way to combat fake news is to make laws.

Contrary to this is the principle that, naked or not, the truth must be told and that not reporting something is more dangerous than reporting something false. Clearly, enacting laws to control misinformation to save a country’s image is short-sighted, counter-productive and outright dangerous. Any law with the potential to imprison a person is contrary to human rights and may eventually lead to government-led censorship. Such laws can and have been used by governments to harass journalists and target critics and whistleblowers. This is why the laws made by Indonesia and the Philippines to fight against false propaganda have resulted in state-led censorship. Owing to opposition by the Indian media, India too has in 24 hours dropped the idea of introducing such laws.

There should be no shame in disseminating facts. For example, crimes like child abuse, rape, honour killings, vani and karo kari, and even attitudes towards the transgender community, exist in Pakistan. Culturally, we are not willing to accept that such issues exist and even society is against reporting them. There have even been efforts to stop NGOs from collecting such statistics. In these circumstances, stopping the dissemination of this kind of information under the pretext that it is contrary to public interest will only increase violence and solidify inhumane practices in society. The more a person sees delinquent acts not being criticised, the greater the chance of such actions being repeated. Unless educated, society will condone certain types of criminal conducts thus reinforcing criminal behaviour.

Curbing information only to save one’s reputation is akin to an ostrich hiding its head in the sand when danger is near in the hope that everything will be alright. The correct approach is to take the bull by the horns, accept the facts and flaws because it is only through this that a remedy can be sought and issues redressed. For example, people are quick to see religious justifications for honour killing, when in fact Islam stands clearly against it. It is of utmost importance to expose the faulty logic behind such actions and openly discuss violence against women and honour killings in the context of Islam, as well as perceived social norms of honour. Social awareness has been recognised as the best weapon and society must be encouraged to use it.

Also, the government cannot be ignored. While governments have been reluctant to highlight issues, fearing criticism, my hope is that the newly-elected government builds a progressive society, encourages sharing of statistics and creates public awareness about crimes and evil practices by creating a cell in the information ministry.

As for false news, it is best to allow people to deal with it themselves, while the government’s strategy should be to counter lies with the truth. The argument of loss of national reputation, although important, is irrelevant. Reputations of countries are built by practical demonstration of good character. It was the performance of Pakistan’s armed and law-enforcement agencies in the UN’s peacekeeping forces across the world that won laurels for the country. The fact that we are open to discourse about the worst in our society will enhance country’s image rather than destroy it.

Every society has erred in past and present, therefore there is no need to shy away from the truth. After all, great nations remind themselves of what they have done in the hope of not repeating it. Germany still commemorates the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin to remind itself that it wrongly elected a fascist Nazi party in 1933 which committed gross atrocities.

Let the truth come out of the pond.

The writer is a Supreme Courtadvocate who served as a caretakerfederal minister in 2018, and was the president of the Supreme Court BarAssociation in 2015-16.

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