Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Liberating Pakistan: A Test Case for the World Media

Liberating Pakistan: A Test Case for the World Media
Liaquat Ali Khan

Pakistan offers a superb opportunity for the world media to test whether information can undermine a non-constitutional dictatorship. I am not proposing advocacy journalism that strives to alter viewpoints. Nor am I proposing that the world media incite the people of Pakistan to take arms against the military ruler. The world media must respect the pluralism of governments, political systems, and constitutions. The world media must also allow the people of a nation to solve their problems in their own ways at their own pace. What is at stake in Pakistan, however, is a usurper's willfulness to shut down the channels of information so that the lawlessness of the army rule will not be exposed either to the people of Pakistan or to the world. This design to commit crimes under the cover of information blackout is an unlawful objective that the world media must vow to defeat.

Subverting injustice is the duty of a free press. In this day and age, no ruler anywhere in the world should be allowed to succeed in undermining the rule of law, suspending the people's fundamental rights of life and liberty, disgracing en mass the judges of superior courts, and transporting the nation's eminent lawyers to remote prisons in solitary confinement. This sort of tyranny flourished in the dark days of history when the world media had fewer means to access the story and when no ethics informed the enterprise of journalism. If the world media were successful in laying bare the usurper's entrails in Pakistan, future egomaniacs will be discouraged to impose personal rule in nations with weak institutional protections. The ethics of journalism demand no less.

Arms of Ethics

Numerous journalists' codes of ethics throughout the world empower reporters and editors to expose the abuses of power and the trampling of the people's basic rights that safeguard the dignity of life. The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics mandates that journalists be "honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting, and interpreting information." Emphasizing courage, the SPJ Code further demands that journalists "give voice to the voiceless." This ethical responsibility is most pertinent in Pakistan when a military usurper has abridged the freedom of speech and clamped down on the national media to suppress the voices of the people.

India's Code of Ethics captures a fundamental truth when it announces that "a free press can flourish only in a free society." The people of Pakistan are no longer free. They have been denied access to the world electronic media, including the BBC and CNN. Independent TV stations have been turned off. Despite coercive restrictions on the print media, Pakistani journalists are making bold efforts to expose the abuse of power. The World media, particularly the media in free societies, can help by reporting what the Pakistani media cannot. The stories of suffocation of a people must be told making it harder for the usurper to breathe.

The Al Jazeera Code of Ethics highlights the interconnectedness of the world media and the duty to help a nation's journalists under distress. It states: "Stand by colleagues in the profession and offer them support when required, particularly in light of the acts of aggression and harassment to which journalists are subjected at times." In proclaiming emergency, the Pakistani usurper has blamed the media in weakening what he calls the writ of government. Pakistani journalists may soon be tried in military courts for crossing the line the usurper has drawn to hold his unlawful grip on power. Even if no trials take place, the threat of military courts will chill journalists who cannot afford to lose jobs for they must work to support families. This stressful harassment of Pakistani journalists, if not exposed to the world, will embolden the usurper to further muzzle the media.

News Analysis

Such has become the power of technology that the usurper’s ban on information is not fully working. The print media in Pakistan, after a few days of confusion and silence, have begun to expose the lawlessness of the emergency rule. The Global media have become even more vigorous in supplying critical information to the people of Pakistan and the rest of the world. An Al Jazeera reporter hid himself in the trunk of a car to meet with a political reader under house arrest. The BBC and the Voice of America radios are broadcasting Urdu programs, most beneficial for the people living in Pakistani cities and villages who cannot afford to buy satellite dishes or who have no internet facilities to watch global TV networks.

While the people of Pakistan must get the news, they also need the news analysis. More than the news, the news analysis is the hardest victim of the emergency rule. National intellectuals, media commentators, and political experts can no longer provide critical perspectives on events of the day. There are pressing questions facing the people of Pakistan. Would it be better in the long run for the nation to have the general elections in January 2008 despite the ban on the right to association? Does the right to vote have any meaning when political parties are unable to disseminate political platforms? Can a regime that has declared a war on the judiciary, the media, and political parties be trusted for holding fair and free elections? Are the elections more important than the freedom of judiciary? These and other questions must be discussed in a cool and reflective manner, not by rhetoricians but experts, so that the people of Pakistan can make informed judgments.

If the global media, particularly radio and television, can supply illuminating and honest analysis on the pressing questions mentioned above, the people of Pakistan who yearn for democracy and the rule of law will be most grateful.

Ali Khan is a professor of law at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas.