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Death by a thousand cuts

By Hassan Niaz

In the early 1950s, television broadcast journalism had just emerged as a new and untested source for the dissemination of information in America. Perhaps guided by fate, this period would coincide with the era of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch-hunts. At this point, a prominent radio broadcast journalist by the name of Edward R Murrow had begun doing short news segments on CBS. Murrow didn’t really believe in television as a means of propagating ideas, but that would soon change when he would decide to run a series of controversial news segments on McCarthy which would help lead to the downfall of McCarthyism in America, saving the liberty of many who would have fallen under the axe of McCarthy’s paranoia. The show’s producer, Fred Friendly, would later recall how truck drivers would pull up to Murrow on the street and shout ‘Good show, Ed.’

Countless other examples of a free press protecting a democratic state from the indiscretions of its leaders can be seen in American history: Bob Woodward reporting on Watergate; The Washington Post on Vietnam; the Boston Globe on paedophilia in the Catholic church. These instances highlight the importance of a free press to a democracy, and it highlights why the constitutions of so many countries make freedom of the press one of the most protected forms of free speech.

Would journalists in America have been able to expose the sinister side of many institutions if the three institutions of government had not shown a commitment to the First Amendment to the US Constitution? There is so much that can be learned from that simple question. Constitutional promises can mean little if nobody believes in their worth.

Currently, Pakistan’s press is taunted with pejoratives like ‘treasonous’ or ‘corrupt’ — the favourite insults of populists who wish to delegitimise the press and its criticisms — by more than one institution of government. Not only is this a direct attack on the legitimacy of the press, it is also irresponsible. Donald Trump resorted to the same rhetoric and created an atmosphere in which white supremacists decided to send threats and bombs to news organisations that were critical of Trump. In a country where people already believe that ‘free speech’ is some sort of Western conspiracy, shouldn’t the current government be doing everything it can to support the ability of the press to report what it wants, when it wants? After all, Imran Khan owes the press for much of his fame.

Despite its importance to a democracy as fragile as Pakistan, our press is suffering from an imminent death from a thousand cuts in the form of both indirect and direct censorship. One deep gash comes from the constant self-censorship that it has to undergo just to avoid accusations of blasphemy, treason and contempt. This creates an obvious ‘chilling effect’ on free speech, a legal term that refers to people living in constant fear of expressing an opinion on a particular subject or viewpoint. There is so much second-guessing that newspaper editors and reporters are forced to do that it is a miracle they are able to give any opinion at all on some of our country’s most contentious issues.

Of course, all of what I just said may be censorship of an indirect nature, but Pakistan is now also facing a new wave of direct and brutal censorship. The New York-based CPJ reports of newspaper sales being deliberately restricted in certain areas of Pakistan; television broadcasts being blocked; and journalists getting the midnight knock on the door. Many journalists have literally given up their lives to report the truth.

The consequences of the death of a free press entail one of the guardrails of democracy falling apart. That is one less element that a potential autocrat would have to deal with, and for a country that breeds authoritarian figures like prize race horses, that is a monumental cause for concern. But the concern doesn’t seem to be getting through to the government. A draft bill for the protection of journalists has been pending since January 2018. While the broad aims of this bill — a special prosecutor for processing incidents of violence against journalists, the establishment of a commission, etc — are admirable. I wonder what good another law would do when the state has so clearly shown its stance on what it thinks of journalists. The executive fails to protect journalists from vanishing into thin air; and, the legislature promulgates laws like the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 that actually restricts speech rather than enhance it. These views trickle down to the people, who have started to view the press with suspicion. Wary that they might be harbouring the viewpoints of the ‘enemy.’

Any democracy that does not have a free press is a sham. It is only a democracy in the most limited, reductivist sense. One that bears the name of ‘democracy’ only to the extent that it means there will be regular elections. What we need is a ‘liberal’ democracy, where ideas flow to create a better society without fear of some fanatic knocking down our door. In an article for this very paper in 2016, I spoke of the freedom of the press and ended with a quote by Alexander Meiklejohn. That quote still holds true and I hope every person in government reflects upon it: “to be afraid of ideas, any idea, is to be unfit for self-government.”

I want to close this article by paying tribute to Robin Fernandez who sadly passed away last week. Robin was an incredible editor for this paper, and one of the kindest people I ever had the pleasure of knowing. I pray for him and his family and thank him for giving me a voice in this paper.