Of Don Quixote and the windmills tilting back

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And why stupid people who don’t know the limits of their power are called ‘Quixotic’

 

 

This is going to be difficult, for one is writing about one’s own vocational community. In the end, it will be journalism and its freedom that suffers, not at the hands of a dictator but at the hands of one of its own errant sons.

We forget that it was a so-called dictator that gave the media its freedom by allowing a plethora of private and supposedly independent channels to mushroom without proper regulation. It was media proliferation. Media is a ball of fire that no one can hold. The first person the newborn electronic media burnt was its own father, the so-called dictator, to wit, Pervez Musharraf.

The sad truth is that today few of these private channels are truly independent. In their chase after ratings to get increasing revenue, many television channels sold their independence to non-media groups, local and foreign. For some, revenue from the sale of soul has become more than revenue from advertising. Sad.

What has happened with Geo didn’t happen suddenly. It is the culmination of a decade of unchecked, unregulated media proliferation and the damaging decision to allow cross-media ownership. When the regulator can be dictated to by the regulated, disaster follows.

When one side in an argument tries to kill the other, it loses the argument. It’s the breakdown of civilisation. You win an argument with logic, rationality and evidence, not with the gun. Whoever tried to kill Geo TV anchor Hamid Mir lost the argument.

Whilst the attempt to kill Hamid Mir is deplorable, the reaction of Geo, the TV channel he serves, was even more deplorable. Blaming our premier intelligence agency the ISI and its chief with such alacrity raises suspicions of pre-meditation. It smells foul. For appearances sake, Geo should have seemed to be caught unawares for a while at least. If the smear campaign launched against the ISI and its chief was part of a larger plan to weaken the army and ISI and thus Pakistan, it backfired immediately.

But if the army is not careful and tries to kill a fly with a hammer as usual, it will break the table as usual and be the last one to suffer.

There are many ways to skin a cat. But first you have to be right. Second, you have to go about it the right way. For instance, in the case of Iftikhar Chaudhry, the chief justice now mercifully retired, President Pervez Musharraf was right in the first instance to send the reference against him to the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC). There was a lot of evidence against Chaudhry. But it never came to light because Musharraf did the wrong thing by trying to skin him himself and the Supreme Court got the excuse to throw out the reference, which arguably may be unconstitutional. Musharraf should have left it to the SJC, and even if their inquiry held that Iftikhar Chaudhry shouldn’t be removed, the president is within his constitutional rights to reject the finding and remove him anyway – and vice versa.

If the smear campaign launched against the ISI and its chief was part of a larger plan to weaken the army and ISI and thus Pakistan, it backfired immediately.

Earlier, most lawyers and some judges hated Chaudhry, some saying that they would never appear before this rude ignoramus. Suddenly the rude ignoramus was turned from a veritable villain into an unlikely hero. The cat eventually returned to wreak more damage to Pakistan and the judiciary.

Being a pompous ignoramus, he misused the contempt and suo moto laws so much that he lost his position on the high pedestal on which fate had placed him. Sadly, his ghost still haunts the hallowed halls of our justice system. It will take time before this cat is vomited out.

The defence ministry has requested the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to cancel Geo’s license and close the channel down. The army has banned the purchase of newspapers affiliated to Geo from its offices and messes. The army is within its right to do so. Some cables have stopped carrying Geo.

If the army is not careful and tries to kill a fly with a hammer as usual, it will break the table as usual and be the last one to suffer.

This is a crucial moment. When the crowd is baying for blood, don’t start baying yourself. When everyone is kicking a man when he is down, don’t kick him too, even if he deserves it. Pause. Consider. Think. Take recourse in wisdom. You cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Before PEMRA cancels Geo’s license it should consider that thousands of people employed directly or indirectly by Geo will lose their jobs and immediately assume the mantle of victims, which they will be for no fault of theirs but of their management. Geo will make itself out to be a symbol of the suppression of freedom of expression in Pakistan.

It might just backfire, even though right now all independent television channels are not being sympathetic to Geo, to put it mildly. But attitudes change in a trice. It is natural to sympathise with the underdog.

Not just Geo but all of us must understand the meaning of fundamental rights and freedoms. While freedom of expression is a fundamental right it is not license to spread disinformation, slander and libel and to embroider or manufacture news. With freedom also come obligations and duties.

When the crowd is baying for blood, don’t start baying yourself. When everyone is kicking a man when he is down, don’t kick him too, even if he deserves it. Pause. Consider. Think. Take recourse in wisdom.

We must also know that with freedom comes independence. Media must be independent, which means impartial. It should not promote any particular political party, lobby or pressure group domestic and foreign and become part of a larger agenda to achieve a nefarious end. It should be unbiased and a protector of the national interest. It must allow all shades of opinion to be aired and let the audience decide for itself. It must disseminate the news correctly and truthfully and place blame only if it has incontrovertible evidence to back it. Else it becomes slander.

It is the duty of the state to protect citizens and their families and institutions from slander. You cannot spread an unpleasant truth if it doesn’t serve the public good. One freedom ends when it starts encroaching on another freedom. Freedom of expression ends when it encroaches without proof on a citizen’s right to a good reputation. That is Islamic, which our governments are bound to follow under our constitution.

To blame the ISI and its chief without any evidence for the attempted murder of Hamid Mir was kneejerk in the extreme. The statement of Hamid Mir’s brother is not evidence, just a bald statement. Last Thursday Hamid Mir himself issued a written statement casting suspicion on the ISI but not mentioning its chief. It is not evidence but only a lead that should be followed up by investigators. Benazir Bhutto had also named people in government who would be responsible if she were killed. She was, but nothing came of it, despite the fact that her widower and party led by her son were in power for five years after and because of her assassination. They didn’t even make a serious attempt to find her killers except for her husband President Zardari’s bald statement at her first death anniversary that he knows who her killers are.

Accusations made before the event are just leads, not evidence. Many people are on various hit lists. Making a song and dance of it often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. These are abnormal times that require abnormal measures for one’s security.

Not just Geo but all of us must understand the meaning of fundamental rights and freedoms. While freedom of expression is a fundamental right it is not license to spread disinformation, slander and libel and to embroider or manufacture news.

Instead of banning Geo, PEMRA should consider the Islamic thing: bring it to the Correct Path. Tell its owners that they must come out of hubris and understand the limits of power. Form an independent body comprising respected private citizens to manage it and its editorial policy for a time until its owners have learned their editorial responsibility. Geo thought that it had become so powerful that it could get away with murder. They must understand that there are limits to every temporal power. Misusing power and your mandate is the best way to bring your power to a speedy end. Taking on those more powerful than you makes you a Don Quixote, a suicidal fool. The original Don Quixote was wont to tilt at windmills. Latter-day Don Quixotes find that a windmill tilts back at them when they go too far and its blades chop off their heads. That is why stupid people who don’t know the limits of their power are called ‘Quixotic’. When they meet their end they cry foul, illegal, unconstitutional. For God’s sake, if you legally own a tiger but keep teasing it, pulling its tail and tweaking its ears, it will finally slash you into two without a thought that you are its legal owner.

What has happened with Geo didn’t happen suddenly. It is the culmination of a decade of unchecked, unregulated media proliferation and the damaging decision to allow cross-media ownership. When the regulator can be dictated to by the regulated, disaster follows.

The GEO-Hamid Mir episode has helped to bring the battle line drawn between the government and the army into sharp focus. The day after the attack on Hamid Mir and Geo’s attack on the ISI, the army chief visited ISI headquarters to display his backing for the accused and the prime minister visited Hamid Mir in hospital showing that he stood behind the accuser. How much more focus do you need on the battle line?

1 COMMENT

  1. Excellent analysis of difference between freedom and license. Be truthful, unbiased and do not imipnge on the rights of others. Islamic values of impartial balanced justice is a value that has to be drilled into the psyche of our present and future generations as well. Bravo H Gauhar!

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