Freedom is a culture

May 25, 2014

Freedom is a culture

You might need to pinch yourself before acknowledging that a fiasco surrounding a morning show on Geo TV has become one of the biggest issues commanding attention in this country. Objectively speaking, the issue should never have assumed the proportions that it has. But this is no ordinary battle.

When the deep state is displeased with you, they make it known. For decades, Dr Shaista Lodhi may wonder what possessed her and her production team to make such a bad judgment call -- playing a munqabat during Veena Malik’s ‘morning show’ wedding. Veena Malik of the ‘mufti sahab’ fame -- after her fame for barely clothed photo-shoots with ‘ISI’ tattoos.

But here is the bottom-line: what Dr Shaista Lodhi did on her show was offensive to many but it is hardly a reason to give legitimacy to the rabble-rousers calling for a complete gagging of the relevant media establishment.

I am not supporting Geo’s cause because I write for The News on Sunday. I am doing this because I think that all media establishments make mistakes -- and we learn to live with it instead of calling for outright bans. The most disturbing element in all of this is the schadenfreude of the competitors of Geo. Either the deep state is pushing them to persecute Geo or they really are astoundingly myopic. I think it might be a bit of both.

Freedom is a culture -- and if there is any responsibility that accompanies freedom, it is this: that you will use your freedom to enhance the freedom of others and not limit it. The media houses in Pakistan clearly have not gotten used to the culture of freedom. As much as one may be disturbed and disgusted by their vulgar race for ratings and attempts to sensationalise everything, it would make no sense to call for bans on sections of the media. If they ignore calls for responsibility then the answer lies in demand and supply: if we ignore the supply and change our demands, the media or sections of it will respond. But instead of calling for responsibility while preserving freedoms, many blame freedom itself for irresponsible actions. And to make matters worse, the conduct complained of (apparently) cannot be rectified without taking the channel off-air.

Many months ago when the Young Doctors’ Association was making noise in Punjab, I wrote a piece about my discomfort with calls for registration of criminal cases against members of the YDA. I had argued, back then and still believe it to be true, that decades of dictatorial rule and undemocratic methods have taken away our trust in the premise that freedom is a good thing. We take freedoms not as our rights but as something granted with a tight leash. And when we see someone else exercising rights in a way that we may not agree with, we just cannot digest it. We forget that we always have three options with speech that makes us uncomfortable: digest it and move on, shrug it off or speak up in opposition. Why is it that our only answer, instead of more nuanced approaches (including speech versus conduct distinctions), is to call for bans on speech? And there is nothing more depressing than tacit acquiescence of sections of the media while a competitor is being threatened with a ban.

The word ‘freedom’ is not always meant to make us happy. It is meant to enhance our personal existence but it can and should allow others to make us uncomfortable. You don’t have to like what Geo did or agree with it. But in order to disagree with it, you do not have to call for a ban.

The calls for a ban are, of course, no coincidence. The deep state is unhappy with Geo and is making it pay the price. The federal government is playing the ‘oh, Pemra is like totally autonomous’ card. The naivety should not be lost on us. In fact, let’s go a step further and acknowledge that the federal government has decided not to openly acknowledge its responsibility in this battle. If Geo gets banned, it is one less nuisance and why pick a fight with the deep state when you can avoid it? If only the PM’s advisors would remind him that the deep state is an insatiable beast and acquiescing in its actions is tantamount to exposing a bleeding thigh to a great white shark -- it will eventually come after you.

Throwing others to the beast presumes that you will never run out of supply -- or that you will not catch the beast’s eye. Neither of these is possible.

Therefore, the federal government should make it clear that it will stand behind media freedoms and will not let bad judgment become an excuse for disproportionate and vindictive conduct.

I am not going to defend what Geo did on its morning show. It was stupid -- and offensive to many. But a ban is not the answer. It should not be an option and those advocating it must be opposed. Citing examples of undemocratic and oppressive actions that other states might have taken in the name of nationalism or religion evades the real issue.

We must stop playing into the hands of those who want us to see our freedoms as conditional grants handed down by unaccountable powers.

The decision of the Cable Operators Association of Pakistan to stop showing Geo is nothing short of ridiculous and susceptible to a strong legal challenge. Cable Operators are free to come out onto the streets and make clear their disgust. But their licenses and the laws of this country (particularly Competition Act, 2010) prohibit collusive conduct to hurt competition among media players. True that a cable operator may not be hurting his own competition but competition laws are broad enough to cover competition in upstream and downstream markets -- the laws work along the supply chain. Taking Geo off the air means that its competitors benefit. And while some of Geo’s actions are liable to be criticised and opposed, a cable operator has the duty to uphold a citizen’s right to information.

Further, a cable operator (considering his power in the scheme of media speech) cannot be allowed to interfere with the speech of a news channel. This culture of repression and of viewing rights as some benevolent grant has been ingrained in us. We must break free of these shackles. You can oppose Geo but you cannot gag it.

Killing someone’s right to speak means that they cannot even apologise.

Freedom is a culture