Do we really need a free press? – Mosharraf Zaidi

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Can Pakistan prosper without a noisy and difficult public discourse in which it is hard to get things done because every time you try doing something big, someone publishes a story that gets in the way – sometimes going so far as to publish libellous nonsense?

This is not as simple a question as it seems to me, or most of my peers and friends in the local and global media. The world has experienced profound change, and our inability to understand the change – beyond the simple adoption of amplification platforms – comes at great cost to society as a whole.

The murdered bodies of Saleem Shehzad, Mohammad Salahuddin, and Wali Babar, and the injuries borne by Umar Cheema, Hamid Mir, Ahmad Noorani, Absar Alam and now Asad Toor are manifestations not simply of the binary debate that dominates all analyses in Pakistan. They are manifestations of the impact of wider economic, social and technological changes that many traditional news, press and media persons remain oblivious of, or antagonistic toward. The lives and safety of journalists are at stake. So the topic merits deeper reflection than the reflexive nature of tribal affiliation that I and many of my friends and peers are prone to, on this matter.

There are two schools of thought that dominate today. There is the classical and now old-fashioned view that I subscribe to: a free press is a vital instrument to ensure, to the extent possible, that power doesn’t go to people’s heads and they do not feel uninhibited before making bad decisions. A free and cantankerous media creates disincentives for bad behaviour. Without these disincentives, a society that suffers from major weaknesses in terms of justice and law enforcement would really resemble the jungle. In short, a free press is absolutely essential and all attacks on journalists need to be pursued with a heightened sense of urgency to prevent the stifling of truth.

There is another school of thought. Until recently, this school of thought was mostly an after-thought. Let’s call this the populist way of thinking about press freedom. In the populist school of thought, the press is a tool largely in the hands of a country’s enemies. Those enemies pay good money to members of the press to promote narratives and stories that cause sadness, self-reflection, and self-doubt. These conditions lead to national paralysis, instead of the swift action the nation needs to quickly reform itself and become a Lee Kuan Yew inspired Asian Tiger, or an Ertugrul like defender of Muslims, or a Zeus-like behemoth in the region, or whatever version of mythology we want to associate with at any given moment.

The ‘free press’ in this case is not free at all, but an entity for sale, using its privilege of platform and voice to promote causes and issues that deflate the national spirit, and thereby empower the country’s enemies. In short, a free press in this school of thought is an absolute disaster. It must be constrained, restrained, contained, bottled up and if necessary, totally muzzled.

These two schools of thought are not equal in terms of common sense, logic, evidence or even moral force. But they are increasingly equal in terms of the subscription base for each. The growing base of populist thinking about a free press is not going to be convinced by sermonizing, or by contempt, or by neglect. And those of us invested in the security and safety of journalists like Asad Toor must therefore engage differently with this topic.

Until roughly 2008, platform and voice was an exclusive ‘good’. This meant that the ability of newspapers and large media houses to shape the national discourse was completely unchallenged. In some places, extreme measures were used to snuff it out entirely, but any reasonably free society had a loud and noisy press corps – which could not easily be challenged (just take a look back at how badly General Musharraf’s November 3, 2007 emergency backfired). The discontents of this press freedom were many (meaning that General Musharraf and his friends and many junior officers did not forget that humiliating experience). This dynamic was not unique to Pakistan. It has happened, to varying degrees with varying impact, nearly everywhere on the planet.

As technology began to make it easier and cheaper to establish platforms in the late 1990s and early 2000s, some of that exclusivity or the monopolization of the public discourse began to come apart. The greatest example was the sudden and meteoric rise of Fox News. From a standing start of Chris Wallace, Fox News landed inside the mind of Glenn Beck. These were profound changes to how people saw the world and themselves. The roots of QAnon and the January 6 assault on Capitol Hill may have been built on the shoulders of Donald Trump, but Trump stood on the penthouse built by the world’s most impactful first-generation revolt against the post WWII media – Fox News.

Facebook, YouTube and Twitter – the second generation – blew the doors wide open. And Fox News’s dwindling centrality to the public discourse is a direct product of the ‘democratization’ of crazy. Suddenly, a Glenn Beck didn’t need to slip through the cracks anymore. There were a million Glenn Becks on YouTube. Now, you may wonder: why have I suddenly switched to using American examples, when just a few paragraphs ago, I was citing General Musharraf and the heady 2007-2009 period in Pakistan? The reason is simple: there wasn’t just one Glenn Beck on the Pakistani airwaves. There were multitudes.

From the 1990s to the early 2000s, when Geo News became a central institution in Pakistani politics and society, the individual mattered, but she or he didn’t matter as much as the platform did. And for all the efforts to alter this singular fact, the platform, which was dominated by Geo News, didn’t seem to budge. But the foundations of the entire edifice were not as sound as in other countries. The Pakistani media landscape from 2007 to roughly 2017 was one in which a long-drawn out transition was taking place. Political parties (like the PTI), state institutions including those responsible for external security, and many common citizens increasingly saw an uphill battle in which their world view, described with great contempt by many in the traditional media (including myself), had no oxygen.

For years, this cohort sought oxygen on Facebook posts. But over time, the school of thought has grown – in power and in influence. The uphill battle has become a more level playing field, even if this has been achieved through questionable tactics. Today, what sounded like inane and completely asinine conspiracy theory is commonplace, both on mainstream media and across all kinds of new media platforms. How far has the situation changed from merely a decade ago?

There are now mainstream, highly educated and responsible members of the press that can openly challenge the journalistic credentials of a reporter that has been badly injured in an attack, merely because that reporter isn’t ‘on-side’. Many openly argue that the country needs a new set of laws to deal with fake news – either knowingly or unwittingly endorsing the stifling of all free reporting, and all criticism of state institutions.

State institutions belong to the people. They are accountable to the people. They work to secure and protect the people. How can those same institutions become contemptuous of the people? And, worse, how can the people, even some of them, end up becoming contemptuous of those institutions?

The answer is really simple. Narrow private interests are not the same as the wider national interest. The constitution delineates specific limits to both public and private behaviour because those roles help ensure that the authority of the state stays beyond reproach.

Yet the state is, by one way or the other, constantly under ‘attack’. And not just from journalists, but from ordinary citizens. For example, journalist or critic of journalist, no one believes that due process or fairness can be expected of the Pakistani state. The trajectory of this travel is a narrow, one-way cul-de-sac. A collision between the people and a rigid, personalised set of state organizations and institutions.

There is a better way. It is called democracy. And a free press.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.