Free media is responsible media

Askari Raza Malik

The media in Pakistan is as free as any in the world and in certain ways perhaps even more. The media persons have safely treaded grounds, which might still be ‘no go areas’ for other emerging media. The credit belongs to both, those who have the courage to speak and those who have the grace to tolerate. That augurs well for Jinnah’s Pakistan. It is also true that our media is still going through the throes of evolution. Its mushroom growth has caused concerns, some genuine and some spurious, that media explosion also did elsewhere in the world.
There are certain universal truths about the world media, including Pakistan. It stands formidably united on its absolute right of freedom of expression. It reacts ferociously to the smallest counter argument or slightest rebuke. It remains fiercely nationalistic and loyal to professed national values and aspirations. However, on the issues other than that, complete neutrality and absolute objectivity is considered neither a moral obligation nor a viable commercial option. Some perverted ideas have also crept into the popular perception, which negate the very basic human ethics.
“What is freedom of expression without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist”. There is also a strong feeling that “If you state your opinion, it’s free speech but if I state mine, its hate and intolerance? Right, I forgot how it works.” That is exactly how it works. Charlie Hebdo considers it’s right to ridicule Islam, Christianity, laugh at the miseries of the Muslim refugees and even make fun of Russian civilian plane tragedy, termed by Russia as ‘sacrilege’ but “fired ‘anti-Semitic’ cartoonist for ridiculing Judaism in 2009”.
In the international media, the existence of various lobbies, misinformation, proliferation of sponsored themes, false propaganda and scandalous campaigning against a target country, organisation or celebrities cannot be denied. So is its ability to mould public opinion, turn the ordinary into significant and vice versa and make mountains of a mere molehill. To defend its assumed themes and affiliations a media house can be extremely subjective. Money comes in abundance, be it the ‘profit over people’ and the truth. This is the ‘role model’ emerging media tend to follow. Every culture has its own traditions, customs, and values. The West knows no honorifics. The East is full of them. The West prides itself in ‘sexual liberalisation’; here it still remains an unmentionable. There the gay marriages are being widely accepted; here the very word is loaded with shame. There a princess can publically admit her infidelity, here for another 50 years there is no likelihood of someone following her example. It is not hypocrisy. It is the inherent modesty deeply rooted in the culture and tradition. An interlocutor who loses sight of Eastern courtesies extended to the seniors and the elders sounds more offensive than liberated.
The same goes for the native sense of privacy that might sound strange in the west. The marriage is a sanctified institution. All unabashed references to the marriage or divorce carry affront. The family structure has its own accepted norms where good breeding and grooming are immensely valued. Love and respect go together. The women behave in a certain way in the presence of men. The notion that ‘it is my life and I do what I like with it’ is alien to our culture. We remain awfully interconnected. By following the ‘Morning Shows’ trends popular elsewhere, we are probably following a course that will be difficult to correct. If modernisation means immodesty, Pakistan is not in need of it.
And then there is that fine line between modernisation and Westernization. The media has to be acutely cognizant of that. Indian media failed to see the difference and is racing to deface its rich cultural heritage. The much talked about resilience of Indian culture despite persistent foreign invasions seems to be now fizzling out in front of the Indian media cold-hearted commercial onslaught. The mad race to be the first in the ‘Breaking News’ runs many risks. It can compromise security, put the government in an awkward situation while tackling a delicate situation, unwittingly expose gory scenes or trample on someone’s privacy. To quote a journalist on the subject, “That free speech is not an absolute right”.
Any narrative that can cause a rift or aggravate the misgivings between any two institutions can be extremely harmful to national interest. There is no bar on any discourse about the judicial decisions or weaknesses in the military. But to blame the judiciary for ethnic bias or pit the military against the civilian institutions could adversely affect public morale and its loss of faith in the system and the government. The Indian media attitude towards their top institutions is a good case in point. The last Indian Army Chief claimed that he could take on China and Pakistan together, a nightmare for any genuine professional and yet the Indian media never censured him for the unnecessary bragging. Two, the Indian military stopped the agreement on Siachen and Sir Creek, without being blamed for interference in the foreign policy of India. And the Indian media looked the other way when the judge deliberately took sides in the case of Babari Mosque against the Muslims. The Indian media seems to have adopted some of these self-imposed restraints.
The media enjoys unlimited powers. It must also shoulder commensurate responsibility. It must act as the custodian of Pakistani culture, its values, traditions, and ideological frontiers. It has to construct narratives to positively influence the youth attitudes and responsibilities. It can promote trends and develop public taste for the sober and the traditional, or inject alien leanings that defy the majority’s dream of our family structure that is the envy of the Western societies. Media has to deliberately participate in the war against terror. It must provide counter narrative to deviant ideologies that have so lethally infested and confused minds especially of the younger generation. It can awaken the mind to the difference between mere rituals and the essence of the value system of Islam and our society that the traditional mullah under obligation to the monarchs deliberately ignored and that the immoral rulers would never encourage.
The media is free. That is not enough. It has to take people along, make them also free; free to live according to their beliefs, customs and traditions. The media has the power to realise Jinnah’s dream of Pakistan while remaining equally commercial and profitable an enterprise.
— The author has served Pakistan Army as Major General.

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