Parameters of freedom of expression

In Pakistan the media misuses this democratic right while the government tries its best to deny it

In democratic states where people are the real sovereigns as enshrined in their constitutions, all state institutions including the media (the fourth pillar) are under a legal and moral obligation to work for the betterment of the people and society in all fields of their national lives.

The much cherished freedom of expression or the independence of media stems from the people’s right to know. The media being the medium that informs the public about issues related to governance and running of the state affairs, wedded to the cause of improvement in the lives of the masses, is therefore under greater obligation to ensure that the information passed on to the people is true, authentic, unbiased and all segments of the society are duly represented. All the ethical and professional codes of conduct drawn by the representative journalist entities and the regulatory mechanisms put in place by the governments all over the world invariably emphasize these traits and fundamental requirements in regards to the role of the media.

Since it is not possible to narrate all those codes, it would perhaps be pertinent to quote excerpts from codes that enjoy international recognition to reiterate and authenticate the foregoing submissions. The fist-ever code of principles for the conduct of media adopted by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) in 1930 while emphasizing the need for truth, accuracy and responsibility of the media said “Good faith with the reader is the foundation of good journalism. Every effort must be made to assure that the news content is accurate, free from bias and in context, and that all sides are presented fairly.

Editorials, analytical articles and commentary should be held to the same standards of accuracy with respect to facts as news reports. Significant errors of fact, as well as errors of omission, should be corrected promptly and prominently. The primary purpose of gathering and distributing news and opinion is to serve the general welfare by informing the people and enabling them to make judgments on the issues of the time. Newsmen and women who abuse the power of their professional role for selfish motives or unworthy purposes are faithless to that public trust. The American press was made free not just to inform or just to serve as a forum for debate but also to bring an independent scrutiny to bear on the forces of power in the society, including the conduct of official power at all levels of government.”

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) dilating on the subject says “Respect for truth and for the right of the public to truth is the first duty of the journalists. The journalist shall regard as grave professional offences the plagiarism, malicious representation, slander, calumny, libel and unfounded accusations. Social Responsibility Theory propounded by the Hutchison Commission in 1947 which is considered as ‘Magna Carte’ for the ethical codes of the modern media emphasizes the same principles justifying government interventions where the media crosses the Rubican saying “Freedom comes with Responsibility”.

Seen in the backdrop the foregoing, the media landscape in Pakistan regrettably is not very enviable. While it zealously guards its independence, it is not fulfilling its obligation of social responsibility. It is highly polarized with the result that the public is not being informed in an unbiased manner.  Certain private TV channels unfortunately are persistently engaged in blackmailing and maligning the government and its functionaries on the basis of fabricated and unsubstantiated charges of corruption. The media as a watchdog against the government has the right to unearth corruption and malpractices within the echelons of  government but it has to make sure that their revelations are authentic, truthful and beyond any reproach.

The worst example of misuse of the freedom of expression by a channel was a report claiming corruption in Multan Metro—involving a Chinese Company–pointing an accusing finger towards the Chief Minister of the province, Shahbaz Sharif. It was alleged that the Chief Minister had made billions from kickbacks from the Chinese company Jiangsu Yabaite Technology Co. Ltd in the Multan Metro bus Project.

The story was sold as a hot cake and even the PTI Chief Imran Khan found it convenient to unleash a scathing attack on the Chief Minister reiterating his often unsubstantiated allegations of corruption against the Sharif Family. But as it turned out in the end and as confirmed by the Chinese Embassy, the company never operated in Pakistan. That confirmation completely exposed the irresponsible and malicious behavior of the concerned TV channel as it reported the issue without verifying the facts which can safely be construed as a deliberate attempt to soil and tarnish the image of Chief Minister Punjab by feeding wrong information to the people. In that context the Channel has also betrayed the trust of the people.

The real story about Yabaite Technology Ltd. was that the company received US$ 17.78 million from some offshore companies in Mauritius, Singapore, Malaysia and Dubai in the first quarter of 2016. As it was an unusual profit, the Chinese Securities and Regulatory Commission (CSRC) started inquiry into the matter. Since the company claimed to have received the money from Pakistan saying that it worked on Phase-III of the Multan Metro Bus Project through its partner M/S Capital Engineering under an arrangement with Habib Rafiq Private Ltd, the CSRC wrote to SECP for confirmation or otherwise of the claim made by the concerned company. Thorough investigations into the episode by SECP and CSRC have revealed that the concerned company produced fake and fabricated documents to the latter. It is a clear cut case of money laundering by the concerned company and reportedly the government of China is taking action against it for the crime committed.

What the concerned TV Channel propagated was something very serious that represented breach of all the ethical and professional codes of conduct for the media and did warrant appropriate action under the relevant laws. The government being under obligation to make sure that all the institutions and entities operating within the confines of the geographical boundaries of the state carry out their activities in conformity with the relevant prescribed rules, must initiate the process of dialogue with the media entities for the strict enforcement of the professional and ethical codes of conduct for the media and respect for the relevant regulatory laws in vogue at the moment.

There is no concept of unbridled freedom of expression for the media anywhere in the world. Freedom of expression or independence of media are subservient to the people’s right to know and the media cannot and should not under any circumstances indulge in misinforming or misleading the people. It needs to understand that to enjoy the promised freedom it has to act in a responsible manner. That is what is meant by freedom of expression.

 

 



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