Wednesday, October 12, 2016
Business Recorder editorial Oct 12, 2016
Press freedom under threat For those within the media and without concerned about the increasing trend of threats to press freedom, the episode concerning Dawn and its Assistant Editor Cyril Almeida will only reinforce these fears. The journalist in question has had his name placed on the Exit Control List (ECL) after Dawn published a story the other day by him regarding a discussion in a high-level national security meeting. The basic content of the story related how the civilian side briefed the meeting about the threat of Pakistan’s isolation internationally as a fallout of the persistence of support to armed proxies operating from Pakistani soil in neighbouring countries Afghanistan and Indian Held Kashmir (IHK). The military side of the meeting was cautioned about the results of Pakistan’s diplomatic offensive in top world capitals and the UN to argue our case on Kashmir, which ran aground everywhere on accusations of the continuation of a duality of policy vis-à-vis armed groups operating from Pakistan. There was also an element in the story about Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s objections to the security establishment ostensibly working at cross-purposes with the civilian counter-terrorism effort in his province. The contents of the story are not things that have not been around or in the air for some time. Discerning observers and analysts have been saying more or less the same thing more and more. So why despite Dawn’s responsible publication of the government’s refutations of the story twice has the Prime Minister’s Office described the contents as “fabricated”, “speculative” and posing a risk to sensitive national security interests, persuading the government to threaten strict action against the journalist? The editor of Dawn has responded in the paper by pointing out that the story was checked, cross-checked and fact-checked before being published. As the gatekeeper, it is the editor the authorities should have spoken to rather than resorting to the arbitrary, draconian, and arguably illegal step of putting the journalist’s name on the ECL. In the event that the government was not satisfied by its conversation with the editor, they had available, as the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE) has pointed out, recourse to the Press Council and ultimately the courts to seek redress. CPNE has been joined in its objections to the action by media and human rights bodies, all of whom have condemned the step as a throwback to censorship, intimidation and stifling of freedoms of the press, expression and speech that characterized much of Pakistan’s existence but which most people believed were things of the past. They have also questioned whether due process has been applied in the punishment of the journalist and the attempts to harass and intimidate him and his paper. Ironically, the security establishment has clarified after the punishment that they had nothing to do with it and had only demanded that the government identify the source of the leak of the proceedings of a sensitive meeting. It is obvious that the story could not have emanated from other than an inside source. And as Dawn has editorialised on October 12, history shows how sensitive stories that challenged the status quo or received wisdom proved in the end to be critical to redefining national interests in an objective sense rather than according to the changing expedient needs of this or that government. Shooting the messenger, as the government seems to be bent upon, is hardly sending out a good or healthy message. Governments must by now learn to bury the draconian and repressive censorship and intimidatory practices of the past vis-à-vis the media. The fourth estate is now more than ever part and parcel of the democratic project, for which Pakistan’s polity has struggled and sacrificed for long years. The present dispensation too should recall its own bad experiences at the hands of dictatorship and understand that their, and the country’s best interests, lie in consolidating the democratic system, with a free media as one of its necessary conditions. The ECL nonsense should be reversed, and if the government still has a grouse, it must follow the dictates of the law and constitution for any redress it seeks.