It was a pity to learn that media representatives could only feel it secure to vent their true feelings within the rarified confines of the highest court of the land and that too with the show of hands when asked by a judge who is facing the wrath of the state. This helplessness flies in the face of the fact that media in Pakistan is now an acknowledged image-maker and this faculty has made many other stakeholders in the system uncomfortable. The bind, however, is that media is also a necessity as it not only provides information but also mirrors the societal movement. Other stakeholders concede the conceptual importance of media but debate its functional aspect. So the urge to cut the media down to size is of paramount importance to many stakeholders and they keep on venturing to achieve their objective.
Ranging from the show cause notices issued to private television channels for airing talk shows in which dissent is given air to sending WhatsApp messages to the newsrooms to follow a particular line, the mainstream media is experiencing a vice-like grip not witnessed in recent years. There existed potent fears that the social media may also be gagged but thanks to the Biden victory those apprehensions have partially subsided.
The informal opinion sought in the apex court makes one to recollect that earlier a high court formulated eight questions for the media and sought suggestions to regulate content in order to avoid airing of objectionable material in television programmes. The formulation of questions was qualified by mentioning that contents of the programmes apparently entailed prejudging the right to a fair trial. The court’s queries encapsulated the scope of media freedom in the context of the law of criminal contempt, the balance between the right of freedom of expression and preserving the integrity of the system of justice and upholding public confidence in judiciary, the obligation and responsibilities of a reporter, publisher, broadcaster and editorial management regarding pending proceedings and the restrictions required to be observed in order to ensure that pending proceedings are not prejudiced.
The court also questioned whether publicity during trial or prejudging the outcome of a hearing or trial amount to criminal contempt under the Contempt of Court Ordinance and that whether the regulatory framework was effective enough to ensure that sanctity and integrity of legal proceedings remained protected and whether the contents of the programmes to which these proceedings relate amounted to committing criminal contempt under the Contempt of Court Ordinance, 2003.
The questions raised then were pertinent but it appears that their validity is completely ignored. To begin with is the natural curiosity accompanying highly contentious matters of public importance particularly political developments and it falls under the primary domain of the media to bring them to the fore. It must also be kept in mind that the public opinion is prone to interpret matters according to their perceptions and the next step in this seminal exercise is conjecturing though it may not be accurate but unfortunately it is the natural corollary of any contention. Media cannot remain aloof from the entire process and tries to portray various dimensions of public opinion.
It must also be noted that in the absence of any formal channel of ascertaining public opinion media is the only way-out to obtain it. In doing so media is actually performing a national service and any attempt to discourage it from doing so may tantamount to curbing free exercise of opinion. The objection raised about the so-called objectionable contents of media programmes actually contradicts itself when the superior court insists that protecting press freedom and freedom of speech is of paramount importance for strengthening the democratic process and upholding the rule of law. It is quite cumbersome to separate the public expression of views from freedom and what is needed is to reassess the contours of freedom itself and the validity of expression.
Media coverage in Pakistan is recognisably not free-for-all and media personnel are fettered by quite a corpus of regulations. Moreover, they have the good sense to stay clear of the imaginary lines drawn by unseen regulators who are very whimsical in perceiving matters and pretty unforgiving in their intent. It must also be kept in mind that regulating media according to legalistic or administrative considerations is a futile effort because media acts on compulsions of social flows and it resembles a wave that makes its own way.
Media is by nature irreverent and possesses a healthy disrespect for human action that is often reflected in its coverage. It may not prove successful to confine the free spirit of media within a system that usually represents a one-way traffic amenable to specified chains of command and operating spheres. It is not wise to equate the raison d’être of media functionality with staid operations of other segments of a nation-state that still hold dominance in a developing country like Pakistan. On the contrary it would be wise to let media make its own way and define its conduct accordingly. It is very pertinent to observe that media possesses the unrivalled quality of self-assessment and it should be left to the discretionary vitality of media to set its course of action. TW