Freedom comes with responsibility

Courtesy:- Malik Muhammad Ashraf

Dr Robert Maynard Hutchison, the former vice-chancellor of Chicago University, headed the Hutchison Commission formed in the US in 1942 to make recommendations on the freedom of expression and media’s obligations towards society. It was in the backdrop of growing calls by the US public for government intervention to check the indiscretions of the media and attempts by it to avoid incisive government regulation. He remarked once, “Freedom comes with responsibility.”

The report of the Commission submitted in 1947 is regarded as the Magna Carta of the modern concept of freedom of expression and media’s responsibilities towards society. It unequivocally emphasised the need for media to provide an accurate, truthful and comprehensive account of events; act as a forum for exchange of comment and criticism; present and clarify the goals and values of society, and make sure that it projects a representative picture of the constituent groups of society. The report also reiterated the fact that society and public have a right to expect high standards of performance and as such, intervention can be justified to secure the public good. Ethical and professional codes of conduct for the media drawn up by UNESCO, International Federation of Journalists, Media associations, Press Councils in the countries where self-regulatory arrangement is in place and the code of ethics that forms the part of Press Council Ordinance in Pakistan invariably espouse the principles of the Social Responsibility theory propounded by the Hutchison Commission.

Judged on the touchstone of the foregoing, the media landscape in Pakistan presents a very dismal picture. While it zealously tends to maintain and protect its freedom, it is not showing the sense of social responsibility that goes with freedom of expression. Media, regrettably, like the political polarisation in the country, is also divided into anti-government, pro-government, and rightist groups with each entity trying to rub in its own skewed and partisan views on national issues and even resorting to smear campaigns against their supposed rivals. Consequently, truth and social responsibility have become casualties of this rampant media culture. A particular media group, which is essentially hostile to the incumbent government, seems to have thrown all caution to the wind in complete disregard of the universally accepted professional and ethical standards and is hell-bent to distort its image. It does not let go of any opportunity to have a swipe at the government and is on record to have invented scandals and shown an irrepressible propensity to even resort to falsehood.

The petition filed in the Supreme Court (SC) by a duo of journalists asked the court to establish a media accountability commission. It accused government of having bought the loyalties of certain journalists and media groups, using well over Rs four billion from the secret fund of the ministry of information and broadcasting. This is manifestly the collateral fallout of this culture of irresponsibility and falsehood. The journalists, probably taking their cue from the claims of the opposition leader in this regard, have taken this step without verifying the facts themselves and mistakenly or consciously have been guilty of trying to mislead the public and the court. The information minister is fully justified to take umbrage at this falsehood and demand action against those elements who have committed this act of maligning the government and tarnishing its image. He showed the media the budgeted amount of the secret fund, which is only one Rs 12 million, and spelt out the purpose for which it is used.

Nobody should be allowed to use the freedom of expression as license to misinform the public and portray government in a bad light on the basis of unsubstantiated claims and without evidence or proof. This kind of behaviour is not tolerated even in societies that boast of freedom of media as the hallmark of their polity. During the US elections in 2000, the bulk of the media relied on the data from exit polls and vote projections gathered by the Voters News Service (VNS). It included ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX, NBC and AP, and papers such as The New York Times declared before the close of the polls mistakenly that Al Gore had won the state of Florida and thus the presidency. Later, the same media claimed that George W Bush had won. Following the election, several members of Congress made veiled threats of government regulation but backed away after network executives vowed during the congressional hearings not to project the winner until polls had closed. And in spite of an expensive overhaul of the computer system, the VNS was disbanded. It was simply a case of wrong predictions whereas the petition filed by the journalists in the SC involves a proven falsehood. Government deserves unqualified accolades for tolerating such indiscretions by certain media groups and media men and resisting the temptation to put curbs on the freedom of expression, although basically its responsibility is to ensure that media operates within the accepted parameters of professional and ethical conduct. Media and government have complementary roles in promoting the well being and progress of society. If media is a watchdog over the government, the government is also a watchdog over the media.

The prayer by the petitioners to the court for the formation of a media accountability commission is also untenable. Government has repeatedly shown unreserved willingness to devise a self-regulatory mechanism for the media like in other countries and a process of dialogue with the media representative bodies is already underway. Perhaps that is the proper forum for raising such questions. Moreover, setting up such bodies is the prerogative of the executive and the involvement of the courts in anything under the skies is likely to create many distortions in regards to good governance. During the hearing of the petition a learned judge of the two-member bench asked what is the job of the ministry of information and the answer given by one of the petitioners was, it did nothing but pressurised media. I am amazed by the ignorance of the learned judge and the wrong answer given by the petitioner. The ministry of information exists because of the people’s right to know. It is the responsibility of government to keep the people informed about its activities and policies and government is a major source of information for media. This arrangement exists in every country of the world in one form or the other. That also belies the contention of the petitioner that the ministry of information does nothing but pressurise the media.


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