Freedom of expression and democracy
By: Malik Muhammad Ashraf
Our nation has suffered enough at the hands of self-styled saviours and proponents of unconstitutional remedies to fix the maladies afflicting the system
John Wilkes, a radical and popular politician of London, a journalist and pioneer of freedom of the press in Britain during the 18th century, writing in the first issue of his weekly newspaper The North Britain in 1762 said, “Freedom of expression is the bulwark of all other liberties in Britain.” This quote has almost a biblical sanctity for all the nations who value human rights and liberties and their significance in nation building, especially those professing democratic dispensations. In fact, freedom of expression and democracy reinforce each other and arguably are mutually indispensable.
Viewed in the backdrop of the foregoing, one can hardly take issue with the statement of President Asif Zardari on the eve of the inauguration of PTV’s English Channel that independent media was a guarantor of human rights, freedoms and liberties, and its role was critical in furthering democracy. An anodyne observer would readily give credence to the fact that the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)-led government has exhibited remarkable and unswerving commitment to upholding the freedom of the media by staying unruffled in the face of harsh and sometimes even hostile comments. It has kept faith in the freedom of expression, access to information and informed accountability, which are the essential ingredients of a democratic polity. As a consequence of this new culture of media independence, democracy surely has been strengthened and the country for the first time is poised for a transition of power through reference to the people. The credit for this incredible development deservedly also goes to the role that media has played in espousing the cause of democracy and keeping the forces inimical to democracy at bay, notwithstanding its indiscretions and sometimes partisan fulminations.
It is said that the worst form of democracy is better than the most benign dictatorship. There is no denying the fact that democracy in Pakistan in the present form has a slew of inadequacies and there is a need for reforms in the system. But these reforms can be brought about only through an evolutionary process and uninterrupted democracy in the country. We surely have a long way to go in consolidating democracy and its gains. Removing systemic flaws is a very slow and painstaking process and so is the strengthening of state institutions, which requires patience, perseverance and unfaltering commitment to the cause. Five or 10 years are too short a time span in the life of a nation to fix aberrations in the system of governance, particularly in a country like ours that is reeling under the never ending battering of the sinister machinations of the carpet baggers and power-hungry adventurers.
An intense war is raging between the anti-democracy and democratic forces. The anti-democracy forces are still at work and hatching conspiracies against democracy. Honestly, I feel alarmed by the statement of the PPP leader Raza Rabbani the other day that a conspiracy was being hatched to set up an unconstitutional caretaker government for the next three years. He urged the whole nation to stand up and thwart the designs of the elements hankering to derail democracy. His observations need to be taken seriously by the democratic forces and civil society.
Our nation has suffered enough at the hands of self-styled saviours and proponents of unconstitutional remedies to fix the maladies afflicting the system. Their machinations must be resisted by all the stakeholders in democracy, more so by the media. It is time that the democratic forces and media made it a common cause to defend democracy and constitutional rule in the country. The country is passing through a very critical stage of its political history and the challenges confronting it are indeed very formidable. It is said that the character of a nation is best demonstrated in times of adversity. We must face these challenges collectively and prove to the world that we are democracy-loving people and we have not lost our faith in the course chartered by our founding father. We must not be cowed down or frustrated by our past failures. We owe it to posterity to leave a healthy and vibrant legacy for them.
Our media also owes it to the nation to play a positive role in the reconstruction and reform process internally, and to counter the venomous and misleading propaganda against Pakistan by the foreign media and the misperceptions that exist in other societies about our beloved homeland. We may and should respect difference of opinion on national issues but we must speak with one voice when it comes to the image and prestige of the country.
Unfortunately, Pakistan is the most misunderstood country in the world in spite of its pivotal role in the international fight against terrorism. Projecting a soft image of Pakistan is an imperative need of the hour, and the media certainly has a role cut out for it. It needs to reprioritise its preferences and give due attention to this aspect. In view of this desirable effort, the inauguration of the English Channel of PTV is a very welcome and thoughtful initiative of the government. The channel with its global outreach can greatly help in projecting a soft image of Pakistan by spotlighting positive developments in the political, economic, social and cultural spheres within the country, efforts of the government to support and strengthen peace initiatives unfurled by the United Nations, presenting a realistic perspective on the war on terror, reflecting the sacrifices and sufferings that Pakistan has gone through and the enabling environment that the government has provided to the international organisations working for humanitarian causes within the country. This outlet will also be of tremendous value to the diplomatic community based in Islamabad in knowing and appreciating the developments within Pakistan in their true perspective and context and help them in providing a well-informed feedback to their governments back home.