Media control authority and dissenting voices

Without freedom of expression, other fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution will be difficult to achieve


Dr Syed Akhtar Ali Shah September 29, 2021
The writer is a practising lawyer. He holds PHD in Political Science and heads a think-tank ‘Good Governance Forum’. He can be reached at [email protected]

The incumbent government’s proposed Pakistan Media Development Authority Ordinance is considered yet another attempt to stifle dissenting voices and freedom of expression. The proposed bill went viral on mass media because if enacted it will be a blatant proclamation of war against journalists. It will stamp out the diversity of opinion, which is essential for a thriving democracy. In a coercive system, independent electronic and digital media platforms will find it difficult to survive. The nation will be deprived of the fourth pillar of the state to act as a watchdog over the executive. Consequently, the transparency and accountability of the PTI as a political outfit will be negated.

Across the world, freedom of expression is considered the most valuable human right and is guaranteed in the constitutions of most states. As early as 1848, the French revolution laid the foundations of enlightenment through the notions of “liberty”, “equality” and “fraternity”. Enlightenment gave impetus to new ideas, discoveries, learning, innovation, and progress. In the present world, the US Constitution confirms the provision of liberty in the country. It states, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union … and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves, and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Similarly, Article 10 of the Human Rights Act in the UK protects the right to hold one’s own opinions and express them freely without government interference. This includes the right to express your views through public demonstrations or through published articles, books, art, television or radio broadcasting, and social media.

All celebrated writers advocated liberty and considered it essential for a progressive society. English philosopher John Stuart Mill stated that the individual has absolute right over his independence, and freedom to express this independence must be protected. He firmly believes that the medium of liberty of thought and discussion can overthrow error, and one can reach truth and progress. According to him, “A state which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes, will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished.”

The Constitution of Pakistan also guarantees freedom of speech as a fundamental right. It states that “every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press”. Of course, there are certain restrictions 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, or incitement to an offence. Simultaneously Article 8 of the Constitution states in clear terms that laws inconsistent with or in derogation of fundamental rights will be void.

Without freedom of expression, other fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution of Pakistan will be difficult to achieve. Therefore, the protection of freedom of speech is imperative. Freedom of thought is expressed through different mediums such as print media, books, and TV channels. Recently, social media and private digital channels have become the primary means to transmit opinions globally. Suppression of these different means will be an antithesis of democracy and represent authoritarianism.

Unfortunately, Pakistan has a poor track record in terms of freedom of expression. The state apparatus has always tried to crush dissenting voices by placing embargoes through draconian laws. These include Defence of Pakistan Rules, Press and Publication Ordinance, and the imposition of Martial Laws and regulations framed thereunder. Despite all those repressive measures, writers, journalists, poets and columnists have upheld the lofty notions of liberty and freedom of expression through their valiant struggle. Writers like Faiz Ahmad Faiz raised sprits and provided hope and inspiration by declaring:

Mataye loh-o-qalam chhin gai to kiya gum hai

Ke khoon-e-dil main dubo li hen ungliyan main ne

Zabaan pe mohar lagi hai to kiya ke rukh di hai

Har aik halqa-e-zanjeer main zuban main ne

In the past, tactics to muffle independent voices and gag press have always been unsuccessful. The governments that used these methods had to pay a heavy price through their nose. With unflinching commitment and dedication to democracy, the soldiers of democracy surmounted all obstacles and continued to voice their views through different mediums. This yearning continues to persist today.

The government should keep in mind that suppression of the press and media will not do any service to the nation. Respect and dignity as a civilised nation are earned in the comity of nations by ensuring freedom of expression. Investigations conducted by international agencies have revealed a grim picture of freedom of expression in Pakistan. Recent actions to restrict online and offline discourse has further compromised the future of free expression in Pakistan.

The move to enact Pakistan Media Development Authority Ordinance is considered an attempt to fetter freedom of expression. It has received widespread criticism and condemnation by democratic forces. Considering there are already a plethora of laws regulating the press and media, there is no need for another law. A more prudent decision would be to not enact any law in the negation of the fundamental right of freedom of expression.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 29th, 2021.

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