Our Media Freedom “A Clear and Present Danger” By Ikram Sehgal


The medium of modern Communications are television, Internet, cinema, newspapers, radio, magazines and social media. Having become the basic needs of any society, they facilitates exchange of information, organizing of daily lives, economy, culture and developing of ideas. The tools of mass communication are a means to transmit information and opinion, to entertain, teach and engage.
The rapid development of mass communications dominating the public spaces and the minds of the people, the 21st century has added inter-active social media, i.e. the user can post an immediate response to the information or opinion that has been transmitted and the user himself is the only controlling authority. While in pre- social media times news creation was largely in the hands of specialists like journalists, writers, film makers, this allowed for a kind of control by the state over media with certain ethical principles laid down and implemented. The era of social media has given the tool to create news, commentaries and opinions into the hands of everybody, of people who are not specialists, not necessarily committed to ethical principles and basically out of control of any authority. The consequence of such ‘democratization’ of social media has been an erosion of quality of information, the undermining of ethical principles and of control. The result is a flood of misinformation, rumours and even malefide fake news brought into the media with such skill that an uninformed or even an averagely informed person cannot discern what is true and what is fake.
Flood of information has been made available through the media and through the development of science. The globalization of the world brings to our knowledge events that we would have never known about even ten years ago, in many cases this inundates us and which we are many times unable to comprehend, evaluate and judge the information in its entirety, even as educated people. That of course opens up huge space and opportunity for misinformation and tendentious information. This is largely impossible to check out all information available for anybody especially when we did not attend the event or we have never seen the place. So if from that amount of information only those parts that fit a certain tendency of the composer of that news is and put together by someone else so as to make the event or fact look quite different from what is was or what it was intended to be. It is mostly the potential for political influence what most people think of when they talk about the power of the media. Moreover at the same time it could be market information. Advertising is a tool that has specifically been developed to sell and induce people to buy certain products by giving selective information about it that at times can be exaggerated, other parts can be suppressed so as to make people buy.
The same principle can be applied to other fields of information, political and everyday. This explains that the space for manipulation is literally unlimited. Fake and tendentious information is all around us, it can bring down governments and bring clever manipulators to power. Just see the used of “big data” in referendums and election campaigns. So as of today, media have become a ‘hot potato’ globally and the demand for ‘freedom of press’ or ‘freedom of expression’ that had developed in the 19th century in connection with the concept of democracy has to be taken with a pinch of salt. As a matter of fact, freedom of the press is already controlled in many countries; even in Germany where rightist forces have used the freedom to spread their unwanted ideology. And if you think that CNN is giving us unbiased information you better think again. In addition, Germany finances its state-owned TV and radio channels by a compulsory fee that each and every person registered in Germany with or without a TV set or radio has to pay – happily so far it has not been made compulsory to watch those channels!
Liberal mindset and freedom of expression have no long history in Pakistan mainly because of the tight grip of Islam and its narrow interpretation that is in the hands of the Islamic clergy – a category that actually has no right of existence in Islam. This has been to great effect in the gathering for daily prayers. Whereas almost the entire Muslim Ummah is in a mosque lockdown because of coronavirus, look out what some segment of the clergy in Pakistan are propagating.
Almost half of the time of its existence Pakistan has been ruled by the army, this has also contributed in no small amount to the strong state control of media in Pakistan. Ironically it was a military dictator, General Musharraf, who opened up the media landscape by giving licences to private media channels. The impact of allowing “freedom of speech” is seen in the way teaching is perceived and professed in our schools – rot learning rules the roost rather than critical thinking and questioning, which of cause influences the capability of people -young and old- to critically examine the news and information fed to them by the media. Ironically again it is the “free media” that brought Musharraf down. Today Pakistan has around 300 privately owned daily newspapers and up to a hundred TV channels. Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) is the constitutionally established federal institution responsible for regulating and issuing channel licenses for establishment of the mass media culture, print and electronic media. But given the fact that media multiplicity and freedom is a relatively new feature (only 15 years old) ethical principles and a grip of PEMRA or any other institution over this new freedom that tends to go wild has so far not been achieved.
The malice with which Imran Khan and the PTI govt and the Pakistan Army have been treated by privately owned media groups has led to what could be called a political media war. The government has retaliated by refusing ads to be placed in hostile media especially print media that are already under pressure because of the electronically available information that has eroded the number of paper readers. The current coronavirus pandemic has unleashed another war: a wave of rumours and misinformation like that drinking of hot water or standing on the roof top and saying Azaan would prevent infection is boggling the minds. Such misinformation in countering the real information by the medical specialists and confusing the crowd is consequently promoting the pandemic and endangering national security. Fake news has been used as a tool of Hybrid Warfare by the enemies of Pakistan to undermine law and order in the country, spread doubt in the government and its policy. That is why there is a dire need to control the media in our country and promote control of globally acting social media. The spread of false information, rumour mongering and purposeful inciting of people has to be controlled because it can create political unrest, promote militancy and destroy the fabric of the nation.
Between career and conscience lies an awesome responsibility of obeying the letter of the law, or alternatively one’s conscience in the spirit of the law
A man starts yelling “fire, fire” in a movie theatre, the stampede towards the exits results in injuries (even deaths) among the cinemagoers. Restraining or punishing the man would technically violate his freedom of speech, allowing such “freedom” would result in injuries and deaths to innocent bystanders, what should be the logical course of justice? The concept of a “clear and present danger” enunciated by US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes involved the “freedom of speech” and licence thereof. He maintained that when any individual misuses any freedom (in this case of speech) and endangers others the concept of application of justice must recognise the situation as a “clear and present danger” and restrain the individual, relying more on logic and the spirit of the law rather than the pure letter of the law.
Drawn into an ‘Aid to Civil Power’ situation in Islamabad under Article 245 of the Constitution. Chapter 9 of the Manual of Pakistan Military Law (MPML) is explicit dealing with “Duties in Aid to Civil Power”, military officers have to take written instructions from the magistrate on duty. If the magistrate is absent, the military officer can still act “when the public security is manifestly endangered” and “do as little injury to person and property as may be consistent with dispersing the assembly and arresting and detaining such persons”.
The moral dilemma is whether Constitutional mores will be satisfied in putting down by force in the name of democracy a genuine movement for freedom, democracy and the rule of law? Can the balance between action and inaction be maintained by either obeying orders blindly or allowing the media to make the law hostage to their demands? Between career and conscience lies an awesome responsibility of obeying the letter of the law, or alternatively one’s conscience in the spirit of the law. What constitutional mores did General Waheed Kakar adopt when he sent both President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and PM Nawaz Sharif home in 1993 and remember Gen Kayani in 2008 making President Zardari back down to restore Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry when Mian Nawaz Sharif accompanied by top constitutional lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan broke the law driving through the police barricades to reach Gujranwala? Both were extra-legal but both actions were necessary. Both kept the national interest supreme over Constitutional mores. PM Gilani’s notification restoring the CJ was technically illegal, made legal only a year later post-facto by the beneficiary himself, legally and constitutionally not extremely kosher, the clear and present danger is having no country at all! For the sake of the country the PM’s “judge and jury” role is best suited within the parameters of the constitution in a national emergency. Those who matter should follow the route of pragmatism by declaring a national emergency to avoid complete breakdown of Constitutional authority.
Democracy in the times of big data and cyber information wars has to change its tools: We cannot afford drama-baaz politicians exploiting the situation not only for political gain but to evade prison that is inevitable because of their corruption. Such people manipulated the media at the expense of the national interest. Media freedom has to be regulated in order to let democracy survive. Coronavirus is teaching us that nothing can be taken for granted. Do we have the courage to take the necessary steps to protect our society in the time of extreme danger?