Ahmad Nadeem Gehla
Over the last weeks, television screens have broadcasted the growing and angry media sentiment against government over ban on a talk show of a private TV channel by Dubai authorities. Freedom of expression denotes not only freedom of verbal speech but any act of seeking, receiving and delivering information or ideas. Freedom of expression is closely related to the concept of freedom of conscience and freedom of thought. Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan gives powers to the state to restrict the freedom of expression in interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defense 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 offense.
It is the jurisdiction of the judiciary, which itself has been under strong influence of establishment to decide what restrictions may be placed on freedom of expression. Although these restrictions are not strictly enforced by the judiciary but religious conservative groups in the population enforce these restrictions at will followed by the heavy-handed tactics of the police, the army and the intelligence services to intimidate journalists perceived to cross the ‘limits’. The history and influence of religious extremists in media dates back to the process of the politicization and militarization of religious groups initiated both by national and international actors during cold war.
The religious groups which were reorganized and strengthened for Afghan Jihad have maintained close ties with the military for decades and have gained strong influence over Pakistan’s political, cultural and social landscape. As every dictator searches for domestic legitimacy they find mullah to be a useful tool and the mullahs are more than willing to support the military’s policies. The ‘mullah-military collaboration cannot work unless it is strongly glorified by mainstream media and masses are convinced of holly designs of the regime. As the military considers itself not only the defender of physical but also the ‘ideological’ borders of the country, the religious right is acceptable currency.
This marriage of convenience on one hand provides legitimacy to military influence over state policies while on the other hand provides due share in power to religious groups thus threatening fundamental, political, economic and social rights of people. In return for assisting the military’s electoral maneuvers, dictatorships and declaring military dictators as ‘holy warriors’, the religious groups get their followers recruited in educational institutions, civil and military establishment and mainstream media. The censorships, imprisonments, torture and economic restrictions during dark regime of Ziaul Haq successfully killed the liberal and independent media while only those media outlets were able to survive which submitted to the right wing policy.
These media groups which recruited radical religious elements to glorify mujahedeen on establishment and CIA demands still continues to be strongly under that influence. Commercially driven mass market media around the world, primarily serves the interests of its paymasters and is loyal to its sponsors rather than to the public interest. These corporate dominating the media market choose to suppress or flash stories and issues which serve interests of their sponsors. Concentration of media ownership in hands of relatively small number of powerful corporate is sociologically detrimental as it plays key role in manipulating people’s beliefs and actions based on those beliefs.
The radical religious right uses their teaching and propaganda to create an atmosphere of hatred conducive to the polarization and radicalization, while freedom of expression discourages the appeal of extremists who incite religious hatred. Pakistan will add an additional 100 million people to its current population, majority of which being less than 18 years of age, in the next 25 years. What is at stake of course is the Pakistan’s capacity to develop as a moderate and democratic society by defeating religious intolerance. The free media has a vital role to play in shaping a society which respects the equality before the law, the rights of minorities, separation of powers, freedom of expression and religion.
Campaign against democratic government and biased reports based on “unimpeachable sources” and a “knowledgeable insider” from right wing influenced media personals began pouring since the army expressed its reservations over Kerry-Lugar legislation. Some media groups also considered it to be a good opportunity to pressurize and milk the government in the process thus adding in to their corporate profits. Extremists don’t believe in democracy, the major opposition of democracy and democratic government is coming from same sections of media which strongly supported actions of Taliban of Sawat and even tried to justify the public flogging of a young girl referring quotes from holy book.
The sermons of a self proclaimed scholar and talk show host resulted in to assassination of members of a minority group. The association of some media group’s and religious parties with movement for restoration of Judiciary in a favorable manner by over-projection the issues against General Pervaiz Musharaf was a result of corporate interests and ideological motivation rather than love for rule of law or free judiciary. How much these self righteous defenders of judiciary even doesn’t believe in free judiciary and rule of law , this is evident from target killing of hundreds of lawyers and judges during past two decades. On the eve of New Year celebrations the stick wielding brigades of these religious parties enforce morality in streets by publicly punishing the celebrating youth, conveniently ignoring the constitutional rights and freedom of people.
With return of democracy and an elected government lead by liberal Pakistan People’s Party, the radical religious elements in media has regrouped and started a campaign against democratic system. The religious parties which enjoyed decades in power under dictatorships are unable to win through popular vote as such military intervention is not only a short cut to power but also to fulfill their dreams of implementing regressive religious rule. However the army has realized that a weak economy, militancy and interference in to political affairs are undermining its capabilities to narrow the gap in defense capabilities with India. On domestic front the strong reaction in masses against military rule needed to fight militancy and international demands for crackdown on militants has further widened the gap in mullah-military alliance.
Those inviting army for a takeover are the very same people defending Taliban actions and opposing the military operation. Unfortunately some media groups have joined hands with these extremists for their corporate interests. The media-mullah alliance will only strengthen the extremist and give them a leverage to blackmail the government. If media continues to let these elements manipulate and confuse public with mix of political agenda and religion, not only democracy but media itself would be ultimate causalities. There should be no restrictions on media from government and it is practically not even possible in present age of global village.
The working journalists, civil society and public in general have to stop the mix of media with corporate interests. A free media is always a welcome but the toxic ‘Halal Media’ which glorifies extremism and maligns democracy, in name of freedom of expression should be rejected by the people. No one can stop media corporate to pressurize government or even side a specific political ideology, but it really should not be the mix of religion with corporate interests. This is only the masses and civil society which can discourage the ‘self righteous’ media in the name of freedom of expression. We all have to stand to the occasion and defend another institution from going in to hands of extremists.