John Wilkes a radical and popular politician of London, a journalist and pioneer of freedom of press in Britain during the eighteen century writing in the first issue of his weekly newspaper “The North Britain” in 1762 said “Freedom of expression is the bulwark of all other liberties in Britain” This quote almost has a biblical sanctity for all the nations who value human rights and liberties and their significance in the nation building, especially those professing democratic dispensations. In fact freedom of expression and democracy reinforce each other and arguably are mutually indispensable. Freedom of expression is also one of the fundamental rights enunciated in the Declaration of Universal Human Rights of the United Nation. In conformity with that almost all nations signatory to the declaration and having written constitutions do provide constitutional guarantees for the freedom of expression.

Article 19 of the Pakistan constitution also reiterates the freedom of expression and speech in these worlds “Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression and there shall be freedom of press, subject to any reasonable restrictions 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. It is universally recognized that freedom comes with responsibility. The media in any state has to exhibit sense of responsibility while enjoying its freedom.

The Social Responsibility Theory propounded by Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchison, Vice Chancellor of Chicago University who headed Hutchison Commission formed in 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—- remarked “freedom comes with responsibility:

The report of the Commission submitted in 1947, is regarded as the Magna Carte of the modern concept of freedom of expression and media’s responsibilities towards the society. It unequivocally emphasised the need for 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 Hutchison Commission.

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 polarization 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. A particular media group, which is essentially hostile to the incumbent government, seems to have thrown all caution to the winds in complete disregard to the universally accepted professional and ethical standards and is hell-bent to distort its image. It does not let go any opportunity to have swipe at the government and is on record to have invented scandals and shown irrepressible propensity to even resort to falsehood. Dr. Shahid Masood’s episode adequately reflects the permeating reality.

Mutual rivalries between channels and media groups going beyond the rightful competition in the market of ideas and descending into the realm of degrading dispositions towards each other are yet another contributing factor to the overall irresponsible behaviour of the media.

The media as a fourth pillar of the state and representing the society has to maintain its pluralistic hue wedded to the cause of defending the social values, human liberties and freedoms that are indispensable for the socio-economic development of the society besides playing its educative role on issues of crucial national interest in an independent and impartial manner. It is rightly said that press and nation rise and fall together. The media is also supposed to promote and defend democracy as its own freedom is reinforced in a democratic set up.

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 an erratic and in some cases, even a negative role by certain sections of it, particularly the electronic channels. On the contrary it has been trying to promote a culture of self-regulation by the media and has invariably engaged it in a process of consultation in regards to issues pertaining to the media. Nevertheless it is an irrefutable reality that the government has a constitutional duty to ensure that all the entities operating with the boundaries of the state do not cross the Rubican. One would like the media to self-regulate itself in a manner that while playing its role as a watch-dog against the government, it also serves the cause of the society and the state. In the permeating political scenario in the country it has to exhibit great sense of social responsibility instead of playing a partisan role and being part of propaganda of the vested interests. It needs to present realistic and truthful picture of the unfolding scenario to the public enabling them to take informed and right decisions.

 

n          The writer is a freelance columnist.

The media as a fourth pillar of the state and representing the society has to maintain its pluralistic hue wedded to the cause of defending the social values, human liberties and freedoms.