Natural allies: People and media -by Akram Shaheedi

I am surprised and shocked like many others belonging to the journalistic community and from the civil society over the recent utterance of the Minister of Information Pervez Rasheed in which he said that, ‘freedom of press owes to army.’ I think and wish my dismay is without foundation because of my extraction of the meaning without taking into account the total context. I wish that is the case otherwise my apprehensions of him and the government teetering on the edges gets credence despite the former President Asif Ali Zardari’s support to the “Lion” who should not be suffering from the fear of the unknown syndrome.

The minister of information’s words deciphered in isolation match the comical expression portrayed in a caricature published in a major English daily a few days back depicting the lion licking the army boots. Has he realized that with his remarks he was faintly belittling the sacrifices rendered by journalists, civil society and human right organizations in the arduous struggle for the freedom of press? He is advised to disown and clarify his comments because he cannot be oblivious of the anguish and pain of lashing inflicted on journalists for the struggle. I stand corrected, if he has already done so his silence will be assumed as an endorsement.

He, at the same time, was also bailing out the perpetrators who not only denied the freedom of expression but also made the journalists and the supporters subject of their witch hunting and worst type of political victimization. He should remember the scars of whipping on the bodies of many respectable journalists like Khawar Naeem Hashmi, who preferred to bear the agony but refused to surrender the cause, a worthwhile cause to pursue. A few are still alive who bore the brunt of the brutalities of General Zia and General Ayub Khan.

Putting the journalists in jails could not weaken their resolve and the struggle continued. General Musharraf although liberalized media to a great deal but he tried to chain it during his last days in a bid to perpetuate his rule. The civilian governments in the past also did not lag behind in curbing the press as almost all the big media houses faced their wrath as well. The hatred of General Zia against journalists and the freedom of expression can be judged from when he said on March 22, 1982, “I could close down all the newspapers, say, for a period of five years, and nobody would be in a position to raise any voice against him. If they try to organise a meeting or procession, I will send them to jail.”

The tormentor had perished with heavy baggage of history that his legacy would bear for all times to come. But the movement for the freedom of expression had got intensified with the passage of time and it was bound to succeed because of its inevitability. Today, Pakistani media enjoys far more independence and has surfaced as the fourth pillar of the state in the real sense. No one can wrest it from the people of Pakistan who have taken its ownership with total commitment and is going to stay here because it is non-negotiable.

The minister of information is the face of the government who projects and defends the policies of the government in a most articulate way with the aim of popularising them to earn acceptability of all and sundry. The popularity of the government’s achievements and its position on national and international issues must not suffer due to default. The media, social media and indeed the whole international community scrutinize every move and step with critical appraisal. Therefore, he should be an embodiment of equanimity, articulation, knowledge and above all using well guarded words because his words are the words of the government being a chief spokesman of the government. His sense of proportion and sense of humour should compliment each other in the best interest of the government’s publicity objectives. But his laughable comments could raze his and government’s image to the ground incapacitating him to brush the dust off the face of the government he represents. The present tiff between media and the institution has put the incumbent minister information in a big test and its desirable denouement will earn him accolades of all of us.

The minister of information of an elected government should be in “over my dead body” posture to defend freedom of expression ready to twist any arm to submission that extends to stifle the freedom as guaranteed in Article 19 of the Constitution. He should not be carried away by sentiments of appeasing the relatively powerful one at the expense of the cause that is and should be perceived unequivocally as a great source of strength and courage even in the face of tyrant authority. That does not mean he should jettison the practice of balancing act even on the horns of a dilemma. He must not tumble because his fumbling is fraught with the dangers of falling down awkwardly.

One cannot believe that a minister of information of an elected government, in particular, would subscribe to such views those strike the root of the cause that he should be fiercely and forcefully espousing without fear or favour. Imagine a minister of the elected government saying that freedom of press in Pakistan owes to the army because the army is in the way of Taliban. I am sure his comments were only relevant in the context of that particular day because no army howsoever strong it may be can win a war without the support of the people.

Only the elected government, parliament, judiciary, media and the army are a winning combination when they move in unison. Its irrefutable veracity can be very well judged from the military and political debacles inflicted on this nation through the annals of history during successive dictatorships.

The army chief’s address at the occasion of the martyrs’ day a few days back was enough to allay fears of the unknown when he declared and underscored the institutional commitment to the freedom of press and responsible journalism. His speech’s contents regarding the supremacy of the Constitution and support for democracy were very reassuring. Teaching lesson methodology in domestic affairs hardly bears fruit. Persuasion and engagement do.

National consensus on democracy, independence of judiciary and the freedom of press is total and therefore is far more reassuring because that matches the vision of the founder of the nation and aspirations of the people.

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