Freedom of expression and limits

Malik M Ashraf

THE government of Pakistan placed an advertisement in the national dailies inviting the attention of the general public, Media Houses and Social Media users to the freedom of expression allowed under article 19 of the constitution and the areas where utmost discretion is required to be exercised. The advertisement also mentioned the punishments that can be awarded to the violators of the constitution under the Pakistan Penal Code. The article 19 of the constitution reads “Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression and there shall be freedom of press, subject to any reasonable restriction imposed by law 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 {commission of} or incitement to an offence”
The constitutional provision for freedom of expression and media is in consonance with the internationally recognized role of the states to regulate all the entities within its territorial limits in such a way that they contribute to the strengthening of the state, its ideological moorings, national interests and the moral values of the society with a view to promote peace and tranquillity in the country. In fact there is no concept of unbridled media freedom in the world and rightly. It is universally recognized that freedom comes with responsibility. The media in any state has to exhibit sense of responsibility while enjoying its freedom.
The Social Responsibility Theory propounded by Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchison, Vice Chancellor of Chicago University who headed Hutchison Commission formed in US in 1942 to make recommendations on the freedom of expression and media’s obligations towards the society— in the backdrop of growing calls by the US public for government intervention to check the indiscretions of the media and attempts by the media to avoid incisive govt regulation— remarked “freedom comes with responsibility:
The report of the Commission submitted in 1947, is regarded as the Magna Carte of the modern concept of freedom of expression and media’s responsibilities towards the society. It unequivocally emphasized the need for media to provide accurate, truthful and comprehensive account of events, act as a forum for exchange of comment and criticism, present and clarify goals and values of the society and make sure that it projects a representative picture of the constituent groups of the 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 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 which forms the part of Press Council Ordinance in Pakistan invariably espouse the principles of Social Responsibility Theory propounded by 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 the freedom of expression. The media, regrettably, like the political polarization 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 incumbent govt, seems to have thrown all caution to winds in complete disregard to universally accepted professional and ethical standards and is hell-bent to distort its image. It does not let go any opportunity to have swipe at govt and is on record to have invented scandals and shown irrepressible propensity to even resort to falsehood.
The media can defend its freedom and play its defined role only when it acts with responsibility. It goes to the credit of the government that it has not put any curbs on the media notwithstanding an erratic and in some cases, even a negative role by certain sections of it, particularly the electronic channels. Before the government acts to fulfil its constitutional obligations, one would like the media to self-regulate itself in a manner that while playing its role as a watch-dog against the government, it also served the cause of the society and the state. In view of the prevailing media landscape in the country, the advertisement placed by the government in the newspapers is a timely and polite reminder to all the concerned stakeholders to know the limits of their role in the task of nation building. It needs to be heeded ungrudgingly.
— The writer is freelance columnist based in Islamabad.
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