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The Myth of Media Freedom

The drastic changes in the PEMRA Ordinance designed to muzzle the electronic media were decried and
banned TV channels aired their popular shows on the roadside in defiance of the repressive measures of
the regime. Intellectuals, lawyers, activists and members of a so-called civil society vehemently
supported the freedom of the media, the right to information and the centrality of free speech for a
functioning democracy to take root. It goes to the credit of the vibrant print and electronic media in
Pakistan that it highlighted the lawyers’ movement against dictatorship and incessantly underscored the
importance of the rule of law.

Despite these developments, there is a need to interrogate the notions of “free speech” and
“independence of the media” which have been formulated in the context of liberal democracy. Liberal
democracies support all kinds of individual freedoms, liberties and rights as these are the basic
ingredients of a healthy democracy. Paradoxically, there is a danger to liberty and freedom itself when no
limits or boundaries are placed upon freedom. Unbridled freedom can easily turn into its opposite and
function as a brake on the freedom of others; hence the old maxim that “your freedom ends where my
nose begins”. The most obvious example of free speech denying the rights of people is “hate speech” –
whether by religious or secular zealots-designed to incite violence against a particular religious, ethnic or
regional group.

As most often proclaimed, the freedom of speech is the “freedom to speak freely without censorship or
limitation. The synonymous term freedom of expression is sometimes used to denote not only freedom
of verbal speech but any act of seeking, receiving and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the
medium used. Freedom of speech and freedom of expression are closely related to, yet distinct from, the
concepts of freedom of conscience and freedom of thought.” Such freedoms are deemed necessary
forthe promotion and protection of democracies since free press and media are considered to be the
watchdogs that keep governments in line. The right to freedom of speech is recognized as a human
right under Articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

It is axiomatic to say that the freedom of speech is not absolute. In fact no right or liberty can ever be
absolute for then it often tends to turn into its own negation. Contradictions and conflicts within the
liberty and rights discourse arise from many sources. Societies and legal systems generally recognize the
limits of free speech, particularly when this freedom conflicts with competing values. All rights, speech
and expression being no exception-exist in a context of competing values-and legal systems devise ways
of balancing values and rights against one another. It goes without saying that the rights and freedoms of
those who are powerful and dominant tend to prevail over the freedoms of those with less power and

Liberal philosopher like John Stuart Mill ‘on Liberty’ enunciated ‘harm principle’ as one of the limitations
of free speech. Mill argued that “there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a
matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.” He explained that
“the fullest liberty of expression is required to push arguments to their logical limits, rather than the
limits of social embarrassment.’ Mill proposed the following limitation of free expression:

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“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized
community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

A second form of limitation on free speech, the “offense principle” has been proposed by Joel Feinberg.
Feinberg asserts that Mill’s “harm principle” is insufficient in providing protection against wrongful
behavior as it sets the bar too high and fails to take into account serious offense that does not amount to
actual harm or injury. He believes that some forms of expression can be legitimately prohibited by law as
they are too offensive to one or several groups in a society. However, as offending someone is less
serious than actual injury or harm, the penalties should be lesser than those for causing harm.

Liberal democratic philosophies have myriad approaches to the complex issue of the freedom of speech,
particularly in terms of balancing it with competing values. The burden of demonstrating the necessity of
limitation has been placed on the state as it is recognized that restrictions should be the exception rather
than the rule. The debate between free speech versus hate speech has taken on critical dimensions in
the wake of the post-9/11 world enmeshed in the nightmarish “war on terror” and epoch-making
conflicts between nations, religions and civilizations. According to Marc Perelman, the Bush
administration is seeking to defend the First Amendment and freedom of speech against apparent
attempts by Muslims to stifle this freedom through the UN. He writes:

“The Bush administration, European governments and advocates of freedom of speech are ramping up
efforts to counter what they see as a cam0paign by Muslim countries to suppress speech abut religion,
especially Islam. There is mounting concern in Western countries that Muslim regimes are using a series
of high-profile incidents, most notably the outrage provoked by the newspaper publication of caricatures
of the Prophet Muhammad (SAWW) in Denmark, to stifle free speech and divert attention from their
own repression of religious freedom at home.”

However, Muslims do not seem to be the only ones opposed to offensive speech acts; there were mass
protests by orthodox Christians against the showing of The Last Temptation of Christ, a film by Martin
Scorcese that poignantly depicted the conflict between the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ.
Similarly, in India there were protests when and Indian actress appeared nude in the film Siddhartha as it
was perceived as being alien to Hindu values. There have also been protests in India against films like
Water which depicted the suffering of windows in India. The balance between religious sensibilities and
the right to free speech is not an easy one to maintain because the issue gets tied up with questions of
power and inequality. Ayesha Khan attempts to highlight the interface between religious prejudice,
power and inequality the explosive context of current geo-politics:

“Why must the Western world make cartoons of our Prophet? Why must Britain knight Salman Rushdie,
when he has brazenly offended the sentiments of so many Muslims? Why must Sherry Jones write a
derogatory novel about the Prophet’s wife? This is not about free speech, but about hate speech. A large
part of the eastern world, including countries like Pakistan, India and Thailand, takes religion very
seriously. Yet only Islam is singled out for jest. Not Hinduism; not Buddhism; no other religion. Why? Is it
because the West likes to see the reaction and then mock it? Or is it because the reaction helps it form
the type of image of Islam it needs to justify its own gruesome actions against this hatred and lunacy?

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After all, what better way to deal with such hate-mongers than to eradicate them altogether and invade
their countries one after the other?”

Apart from the Bush administration’s efforts, a new”coalition to defend free speech” was launched on 2
October 2008 in Washington. Major free speech advocacy groups and leading human rights groups
inclined towards a liberal philosophy, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights
Watch, have declined to join the coalition.
While a serious and intellectual critique of any religion is an academic exercise of great value, for it
allows the religion to grow and develop through debate and even discard some of its unacceptable
practices or beliefs, it is hardly justifiable to ridicule and make fun of a minority religion by a powerful
majority. It seems that when the sentiments of be defended at all costs. Nonetheless, in the case of the
sentiments of another community, the freedom of religion and respecting minority sentiments becomes
the paramount concern. When the two rights, freedom of speech and freedom of religion/minority
rights, come into a conflict, the resolution is almost always in favor of those who are powerful. Double
standards, arising from an inconsistent application of norms and values, lead to the legitimized
scapegoating of the followers of a particular religion or ideology.

The current discourse on the independence of the media in Pakistan appears to have been mainly drawn
from liberal philosophy. It decries any shackles on the media placed by the state and upholds the
freedom to conduct criticism of the policies and actions of the government, leaders and their actors. This
discourse is based on the notion that freedom consists in the absence of restrictions from external
sources- the state, society, powerful groups or individuals. In this sense it seems to be a fairly limited
notion that freedom since it refers only to limits placed by outside power in some punitive form.

Freedom from government restrictions or draconian press laws does not guarantee freedom form
religious prejudice, patriarchal bias or ethnic narrow-mindedness. The dominant discourse on media
freedom seems to imply that the media, be they print or electronic, operate in a socio-historical vacuum.
This misperception creates the impression that some kind of absolute freedom can be attained by media
persons as though they have a neutral and impartial space from where they can view everything in a
detached way. It is a self-evident fact that no person is located in neutral space-we all live in structured
societies divided along the many horizontal and vertical axes of class, caste, gender, patriarchy, ethnicity,
religion or sect. being differentially positioned in relation to the State and centers of power, some people
have access to more resources, power and influence than others. The structures of patriarchy, feudalism,
tribalism and capitalism, in their specific cultural and other forms, surround our daily existence and no
person is immune to their influences seductions or repulsions.

We are enslaved by our own version of the world we live in and our actions are determined by how we
perceive this universe. There can, therefore, be no such thing as a totally “free” or “impartial” media the
best that one can hope for is a media aspiring to the best standards and rigors of journalism that are
possible in the face of human limitations.

Corporate media the world over are extremely powerful in coining /fabricating and propagating “the
truth”. Choosing to depict one thing at the stake of concealing another, framing out one fact to
highlighting another, the electronic media in particular construct the world in which people live. What is
left unsaid and unspoken is as much a part of the “truth” that the media create as what is shown and
spoken. Silencing some aspects of reality, over-emphasizing others, the media frame reality for us and
make us see what they what us to see and hear what they want us to hear; they deafen us against what
we are not allowed to hear and saturate our world with what they aim to stress.

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Relating Iraq war as well as the so-called “war on terror”. If one only watched Fox news, CNN and other
US channels one would easily reach the following conclusions: the US is a great and moral empire;
Muslims and some others are a major evil out there; these evil people are seeking to destroy the good
guys; Iraq has weapons of mass destruction and deep links with Al Qaeda and was involved in the 9/11
attacks; however, the great and brave US soldiers will defend and protect the country that is spreading
democracy and freedom in the (un)free and shackled world. Obviously, those who watched other
channels, such as Al-Jazeera, may have developed a different view of the world. However, the power of
the media in creating and disseminating specific ideologies is immense in this age of Satellite TV,
Internet, cell phones, SMS, digital cameras, cinema and advanced print technology. The Indian and global
media ran a marathon of 72 hours on the Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008. For a while there
was no other reality. Without any confirmed information about who was behind the attacks, media
anchors were calling for blood and for parts of Pakistan to be carpet-bombed.

One of the biggest myths of the modern times is that corporate global media are independent. Located
in the heartof capitalism and military might, the giants of international media appear to be handmaidens
of the global corporate war machine and terror. The US reporting of the recent strikes by US drones and
soldiers on Pakistan territory, as analyzed by Anthony DiMaggio:
“American media coverage, conversely, is driven by a warmongering that’s remarkable indifferent to the
dangers involved in escalating the conflict. US attacks on Pakistan inevitable carry the risk of further
inciting Pakistani anger against the US. Such anger takes on a renewed urgency in light of widespread
political and military instability, and the recent emboldening of anti-governmental Islamic forces.”

It may not be a correct assumption that the powerful players in global media are unaware of the
devastating consequences of their actions or of the human rights implications of such war-mongering. It
may be closer to the truth to think that there is an almost deliberate attempt to demonize the “other:
with the objective of strengthening the American war machine which is deeply liked with the
globalcorporate world in a relationship of mutual benefit. The examples of speech and silence,
omissionand commission by leading US newspapers underscore the importance of limits on “free”
speech. There seems to be a thin line that divides”free’ speech from “hate” speech in a global context.

Concerns about unethical practices that threaten journalism have been raised by Jose Torres in
thoughtful report on the media as:“Amid developments like – racial, religious, cultural and political
conflicts that most of the time lead to shooting wars – are the media, which most of the time are used by
partisan interest to deceive, sow falsehood and speculation, and provoke misunderstanding, hatred and
violence. It should not be the norm for journalism and the media whose basic tenets are accuracy and
fairness, to aid the spread of lies and deception. Unfortunately, technological advances in the delivery of
news, the growing commercial interests of media organizations and the drive tor dominate by
institutions and states; have contributed to the erosion of the tradition of truth-telling in the media.

“[The media is] the handmaiden of power, without which it is inconceivable. It is an instrument to assist
in the attainment, preservation or continuance of somebody’s power, whether exercised by an
individual, an institution or a state. It is the extension of physical power into the realm of the id and the

The advertising industry has long been known to use women’s bodies as commodities to sell anything
form soap to motorbikes, from cigarettes to tractors. The psychological assumption that goes with this
commodification is that the affect and passion felt naturally for a female body would automatically
transfer to the commodity to be sold thus making it more attractive for men to buy. Money, commerce

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and the commodification of all social relations have led to women being deployed as weapons in the war
for markets.

Does the independence of the media mean that hate speech leading to murder should be allowed? Does
the freedom of speech override the right to life? Which right or freedom has greater value: life or
speech? The media have screamed hoarse about their right to freedom and has receive the support of
lawyers and civil society in their quest. However, the responsibility that comes with any version of
“freedom” is not evident. Freedom cannot mean the right to do anything irrespective of consequences.
This brings us back to the issue of the ethics of journalism and the norms of justice and morality that
must underpin any form of freedom. Aiden White, the IFJ’s secretary general says:“The manipulation of
public opinion by media-savvy extremists and the poisoning of public discourse happen because
individuals and groups that express themselves freely do not aim at truth. When journalism is
inaccurate, when it marginalizes important issues or denies access to different voice and when it is
manipulated to serve narrow interest, it damages democracy. It cannot be right that with the supposed
expansion offree expression, the quality of information delivered by the media should be declining.
Journalists must start standing up for principles to circulate the worries, fears and inquires of people who
have no institutional voice.” White urges journalists to “ennoble their audiences” using the media’s
power “to educate, enlighten and to unite perceptions in order to satiate noble causes.

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