'Press freedom termed a litmus test of democracy' -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

‘Press freedom termed a litmus test of democracy’

Anil Datta

Karachi: Lauding the sacrifices and struggle of journalists for press freedom in Pakistan, Raja Shafqat Abbasi, chairman Press Council of Pakistan, suggested setting up a national body to ensure that only trained and genuine individuals entered this profession.

This, he said, would preclude the entry of impostors into the profession who were there just to reap benefits and manipulate matters to their advantage, and would keep the profession confined to genuine journalists who were there on account of a calling and had the intellectual wherewithal to live up to the demands of the profession.

He was speaking as chief guest at the Karachi Press Club (KPC) on Thursday evening at a seminar to mark World Press Freedom DayHe suggested that this body could be along the lines of the one for lawyers that registered everyone in the profession and ensured their bona fides were genuine.

Lauding those dedicated Pakistani journalists who braved all odds to fulfil the dictates of their profession, he said that the right to freedom of thought and expression was enshrined in the freedom of the press, and pointed out that while the Indian constitution did not specify freedom of the press, this freedom was expressly granted under the Constitution of Pakistan through Article 19.

He suggested instituting the post of a press ombudsman to look into public complaints about the press and complaints of the press against various quarters. He said that the provincial freedom of press laws had not yet been enforced in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and hoped that they would be soon.

Amir Zia, Editor The News Karachi, said that the press in Pakistan today enjoys much more freedom compared to the repressive decades of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. The credit for this freedom goes not only to the struggle of senior journalists who braved lashes and prisons, but also to the technological revolution that has made it difficult for the state to muzzle the press, he said.

Now the state has also changed its tactics and instead uses covert pressure, misinformation and the power of advertisement revenues to manipulate and stifle the press, he said. The struggle for a free press continues as it faces challenges not only from the state and government but also from commercial interests, he added.

Press freedom also faces an internal challenge from unprofessional and subjective news reporting and writing, which often remains biased and fails to make a distinction between facts and opinion, he said.

Dr Tauseef, chairperson of the Department of Journalism, Federal Urdu University of Science and Technology (Fuuast), said that press freedom was the people’s inalienable right but the exercise of this right was not possible without unfettered democracy. He said that personal freedom was a prerequisite to press freedom and the latter pivoted around iron-clad defamation laws.

He said that press freedom also hinged on the individual’s privacy. As such, foolproof defamation laws were indispensable. He said that state coercion had decreased after 1985 but an equally dangerous trend had replaced it, namely, the emergence of pressure groups that did not even stop short of murder if they found that coverage ran counter to their interests.

Aamir Latif, Bureau Chief, Online news agency, said that as far as the government was concerned, the situation was certainly better than the ‘70s and the ‘80s, but the sprouting of militant groups had made the profession a real hazard for journalists. He said the situation was exacerbated by the fact that the writ of the state was virtually non-existent.

He said another very unhappy development was that today advertisements figured very prominently and news coverage was often left at the mercy of advertising revenue whereby objectivity was the first casualty.

Maqsood Yousfi, Editor, Nai Baat, said that constitution of the Press Council was a manifestation of the struggle of the journalists for press freedom. All kinds of freedom, he said, hinged on this freedom. Press freedom and civic freedom, he said, were complementary. “It is not as difficult to attain press freedom as it is sustaining it,” Yousfi said.

Moosa Kaleem, secretary KPC, recounted and lauded the role of the KPC in the struggle for press freedom, and sustaining it even in the days of the most pernicious of dictatorships. He said that today “while we are celebrating the extent of freedom we have, we also have to lament the restrictions.”Tahir Hasan Khan, president Karachi Press Club, presided over the proceedings.

Who will watch the watchdog?

On World Press Freedom Day celebrated on Thursday at Karachi University’s mass communication department, senior journalist Mujahid Barelvi strongly criticised the media as an institution, saying that few newspapers gave their employees salaries on time.

There were four other guests on the panel at the event, including Shahida Kazmi, Ghazi Salahuddin and Dr Raja Mohammad Shafqat Khan Abbasi, chairman the Pakistan Press Council.

In his speech, Dr Abbasi said that the media was a watchdog, which needed some “watching” itself. “All electronic and print media should be regulated by a private authority.”

Addressing the students, Shahida Kazi, former chairperson of the department, said, “At times the media does cross the limits, but these are issues which can be overcome.”

Ghazi Salahuddin, notable intellectual and journalist, said that freedom of the press was actually freedom of society, and “the press should be able to create national debate.”

“Unfortunately, the race for ratings is giving people popular entertainment, as a result of which quality programming is being compromised,” he said.

“If the current scenario is to change for good, students must read and build their own opinions.”

The News