The meeting of the National Assembly Standing Committee on Information & Broadcasting had more or less the same narrative that we are used to seeing from the government. When the subject of media freedom is brought up, intrinsic freedoms of speech and choice are usually discussed with the additional caveat of protecting the interests of the state. The Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information, Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan made sure that this occasion was no different, and repeated the oft heard mantra of needing ‘responsible’ media to ensure that it does not run afoul of the government and concerned citizens alike.
The media as a whole in Pakistan understands that a fine balance between protecting the interests of the state and the demands of journalism must be maintained, and it has done so professionally over the course of recent history in the country. It is in no way a crime for a newspaper to report on facts that are widely accepted by both national and international media circles.
It is indeed true that one of the bigger problems that Pakistani media is beset by is sensationalism, which is has become a dominant trait in many sections, and this must change. The electronic media in particular is affected adversely by this malaise, which is one of its own making. However, what the Prime Minister’s advisor touched upon is not a related issue and it can be argued that the state is doing more to exacerbate this problem, than to alleviate it.
Dr Awan mentioned state interests in vague terms – as is common practice with the government – which can also be perceived as an indication by the government to keep the media behind the officially endorsed line. Since these ‘interests’ are never truly defined and stay unclear and variable, to be exercised by different regimes as leverage on media organisations when needed, Dr Awan must realise the problem she is putting the media industry in. Her own inability to define what really constitutes state interests will not help in the media realising their responsibilities any better, or work in their roles with more care for state ‘interests’; the only thing such discussion achieves is more self-censorship and fear of reprisal from the state. Whatever politicians might say, attempting to control the media in one sphere results in automatic clampdowns in other areas as well. The law exists for a reason; if media persons and houses do not run afoul of it, they must allowed to practice their trade with their rights and freedoms intact.