The Washington Post bears a slogan that is one of the most apt in capturing the importance of a free press: “Democracy dies in darkness”. The Post has earned the ability to make such a statement by being the newspaper that led the investigation into the Watergate scandal resulting in the eventual downfall of Richard Nixon and his government. Its slogan, and its most famous piece of investigative journalism, illustrates that a free press is an essential mechanism that holds the institutions of government in check. This is the simple yet persuasive reason why much of the world protects the freedom of the press through constitutional guarantees.
Pakistan’s Constitution also makes this guarantee. Whether or not the country itself lives up to this constitutional promise is a bleak story. According to the World Press Freedom Index, Pakistan ranks at 139 out of 180 countries thereby earning another debasing title in a long list of those being gathered by the country in the international arena. Our press is a constant victim of censorship allegedly due to extremist groups, the judiciary and the state. Organic movements, bolstered by people across the class divide fail to get adequate press coverage due to a genuine fear of reprisal. Such a lack of “breathing space” for the press dilutes the potency of our democracy. With elections around the corner we need a free press to keep us informed of the myriad issues faced by our country and to inform us of the flaws of each of our institutions of government. We should be asking ourselves whether we allow the press to adequately inform us about each government failing? Each allegedly flawed court decision? Each failed operation? The World Press Freedom Index gives a rather pessimistic answer to each of those questions.
The statistics provided by the Freedom Network on the issue paint a picture of journalists living in a war zone. At least five prominent journalists were killed in 2017; seven had rather ridiculous legal cases pending against them for publishing legitimate stories; other journalists were kidnapped, harassed and beaten. Such incidents are not just attacks on journalists, they are an attack against our democracy. It is worth applauding that Pakistan has got the ball rolling towards a legitimate democratic setup, but there are many aspects to a strong democracy beyond polls being conducted every four years, and a free press is an essential one that should not be ignored.
This is all the more important given the spread of “fake news” around the world. We need proper quality journalism to counteract fake news on social media. The interference in the US elections by Russia shows how simple it is to manipulate algorithms on social media sites such as Facebook to amplify perception bias and prejudice amongst people. If our government constantly fails our professional journalists, then it fails to mitigate the effects of fake news; striking another blow to our democratic project.
One would think that after the abysmal position that Pakistan found itself on the World Press Freedom Index we would try to change our attitude. That has proven not to be the case since recently Pemra has gone on a dragnet search against the media to allegedly curb speech against the judiciary. With the government apathetic towards their cause, it is time for journalists to band together and speak out about censorship. It needs to highlight just how important a free press can be to expose massive instances of injustice. As the Oscar winning film Spotlight highlights, it was the press that revealed the sheer scale of the Catholic church’s perversion and systemic child abuse. The sheer number of obstacles faced by our press has forced them not to be able to devote, dedicated investigative journalist teams such as those of the Boston Globe.
As elections loom over the horizon, I can only hope that one of the political parties contesting the polls takes up the issue that our press is under threat. For if we are truly committed to democracy this time around — after a constant merry-go-round of dictatorships — then we can’t drain our democracy of its lifeblood: a free press.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 8th, 2018.