Freedom of Speech is a right guaranteed in Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan but is still nevertheless subject to a pretty astounding caveat whereby the law mandates that this freedom is to be curbed when the glory of Islam, the integrity of Pakistan, friendly relations with other states, decency and morality, contempt of court and public order is threatened. These ‘reasonable restrictions’, though may have been put in with the good intentions of the state’s founders, but have been misused time and again throughout history during both military and civilian rule.

Many media laws in Pakistan are also inherited through the British just like many civil and criminal laws. The Security of Pakistan Act allows the government to force journalists to disclose their source of information in the interests of preventing internal or external threats to the security of Pakistan. Section 124-A of the Pakistan Penal Code criminalizes journalists who publish any item punishable because of sedition. But it does not go into the details of what sedition really entails. Hence this clause is open to misuse and exploitation.

A question follows: Should the media not be regulated for the best interests of the public? It certainly must be, given the influence it has on society. But regulation should not be confused with debates on media independence, as both can be mutually exclusive terms. The media should be independent, and regulated. The ownership of the media should not be in a few hands i.e. media consolidation should be strictly discouraged to avoid the formation of oligarchies. Recently, the Pakistan Broadcasting Authority failed to prevent the identification of a five-year old rape victim on television. Certainly, the media here had no regard for the ethics of the case and only cared about its own rating points. The Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors and the All Pakistan Newspapers Society are also unable to prevent the domination of advertisements on the front pages of newspapers in a space which should be strictly reserved for the most important news. To say that the media can be self-regulated is a flawed argument, given the fact that it would not go against its own interests. Similarly, protests against media censorship do not mean that irresponsible journalism should be tolerated. Given the history of state censorship in Pakistan, a more appropriate deal would be for the media to follow a code of ethics.

Ironically, it was during the military regime of President Pervez Musharraf that many private television channels were allowed to flourish in Pakistan, and it was during the civilian rule of President Asif Zardari that we saw much media censorship and attacks against journalists. In 2009, the cable services of Geo TV and Aaj TV were shut down in the wake of demonstrations for the reinstatement of the Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. In the same year, many television channels were stopped from covering the conflict in FATA & the then NWFP. Many journalists were also killed in 2010 after being subjected to harassment and torture. Even the Internet is not free in Pakistan, as it made global headlines when it temporarily banned Facebook in 2010. And the long-lasting ban on YouTube came in 2012 when it hosted the trailer of the controversial film, ‘The Innocence of Muslims.’ We are years on from that day, and YouTube has still not attained its freedom in Pakistan.

The media in Pakistan is not a profitable business by any means, as even powerhouses like Geo have not been able to turn a profit ever since its inception. The Pakistan Television Network is the best example of a state-controlled media house which serves primarily to educate the people on the ‘official’ viewpoints on any affair. Media conglomeration is another issue whereby many newspapers and television channels are owned by one group. Jang Group is another example which controls Geo Network, and the Urdu and English newspapers ‘Jang’ and ‘The News’ respectively. Many of these media channels adopt an anti-India stance to turn the focus of attention away from the inefficiencies of the Pakistani government. The Government of Pakistan is also, surprisingly, the biggest advertiser in newspapers in Pakistan which gives it yet another way to influence the contents of the news.

The only way forward perhaps, is to bring together the journalists, editors and civil society in an effort to make the media accountable to a strict code of ethics. The Pakistani government has already proved to be ineffective in regulating the media and given the fact that it has a vested interest in controlling it (to hide its own corruption and incompetence), it only leaves recourse to a form of social regulation. In this, the interests of the public are given importance over the interests of the media owners, advertisers and journalists. Unless such measures are taken, the media of Pakistan will continue to play the lapdog role for the government instead of the watchdog role which is one of the basic tenets of democracy- because if the free media is a sham in Pakistan, so is democracy.

The writer is a media scientist.