Article 19 of the constitution reads: “Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression and there shall be freedom of 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, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court {commission of} or incitement to an offence.”

The constitutional provision for freedom of expression and media is in consonance with the internationally recognised role of the states to regulate all the entities within its territorial limits in such a way that they contribute to the strengthening of the state, its ideological moorings, national interests and the moral values of the society with a view to promote peace and tranquility in the country. In fact there is no concept of unbridled media freedom in the world and rightly so. Media represents the society and consequently is regarded as the fourth pillar of the state. It is universally recognised that freedom comes with responsibility. The media in any state has to exhibit sense of responsibility while enjoying its freedom.

Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchison, Vice Chancellor of Chicago University headed Hutchison Commission formed in the US in 1942 to make recommendations on the freedom of expression and media’s obligations towards the society, in the backdrop of growing calls by the US public for government intervention to check the indiscretions of the media and attempts by the media to avoid incisive government regulation. Under his Social Responsibility Theory he remarked “freedom comes with responsibility.”

The report of the Commission submitted in 1947, is regarded as the Magna Carta of the modern concept of freedom of expression and media’s responsibilities towards the society. It unequivocally emphasised the need for the media to provide accurate, truthful and comprehensive account of events, act as a forum for exchange of comment and criticism, present and clarify goals and values of the society and make sure that it projects a representative picture of the constituent groups of the society. The report also reiterated the fact that society and public have a right to expect high standards of performance and as such intervention can be justified to secure public good. Ethical and professional codes of conduct for the media drawn up by UNESCO, International Federation of Journalists, Media associations, Press Councils in the countries where self-regulatory arrangement is in place and the code of ethics which forms the part of Press Council Ordinance in Pakistan invariably espouse the principles of the Social Responsibility Theory propounded by the Hutchison Commission.

The Media is regarded as a two-pronged weapon. A good and responsible media can lift the nation to dizzying heights by providing a strong support for its development. National pride and a bad or irresponsible media can cause chaos and disorder in the society. Democracy is a rule of the people through their elected representatives. The government thus formed is subservient to popular sovereignty. One of the hallmarks of a democratic system is the freedom of expression and the space that is provided to dissenting views and opinions expressed by different sections of society. For the democratic system to function to its full potential, the participation on the part of the general masses is imperative, which in turn requires dissemination of reliable information to the masses on various public issues. This is where the mass media come in.

Mass media in its different forms has influenced human lives in the modern era. They have primarily provided information and entertainment to people across their respective countries and globally as well. Print media being the leader over a considerable period of time is now faced with competition from the electronic media, which is reshaping many social responses. Radio apart from providing news and views has also developed a penchant for entertainment thereby getting a lot of acceptance. There is also now a new media with the internet being its flag bearer. The internet has actually revolutionised the media and made it possible to disseminate information and ideas in real time across the globe. These developments are feared to have posed threats to the democratic way of thinking and new issues in regards to expanding role of the media have also come on the fore. The media has become quite unwieldy, making it difficult for the governments to act as a watch dog against the indiscretions committed by it. This however has made it even more imperative than before for the governments to make sure that the media does not cross the Rubicon, with all it accompanying negative fall-out.

Judged on the touchstone of the foregoing, the media landscape in Pakistan presents a very dismal picture. While it zealously tends to maintain and protect its freedom, it is not showing the sense of social responsibility that goes with the freedom of expression. The media, regrettably, like the political polarisation in the country, is also divided into anti-government, pro-government, and rightist groups with each entity trying to rub-in its own skewed and partisan views on national issues and even resorting to smear campaigns against their supposed rivals. Consequently, truth and social responsibility have become casualties of this rampant media culture.

The media can defend its freedom and play its defined role only when it acts with responsibility. It goes to the credit of the government that it has not put any curbs on the media notwithstanding the erratic and in some cases, even a negative role by certain sections of it, particularly the electronic channels.

It is satisfying to note that in recognition of its responsibility towards media it was trying to encourage a culture of self-regulation by the media with a view to lessens government interventions and also contemplating to promulgate legislation to ensure safe and secure working environment for the journalists. It is engaged in a process of consultations with the media representative bodies to seek their input and after the completion of the process two bills will be moved in the parliament. One is the Access to Information Bill (revised version) and the other for promoting welfare and security of the journalists. The government is also contemplating the arrangement of training courses for the journalists in the Information Service Academy for their capacity building and enhancing their knowledge about ethical and professional codes for the media.

Media and government have a complimentary role in regard to promoting the well being of the masses and strengthening state structure. They are also watch dogs against each other and therefore need to recognise and acknowledge each other’s role ungrudgingly.