Media watch

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Arguments to allow media unbridled freedom, abolish Information Ministry unfounded

During court proceedings on a writ petition filed by a duo of journalists in regards to the formation of a media commission to look into issues related to freedom of expression and the role of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, arguments have been preferred to insinuate the notion that the freedom of expression is best served when media has an overarching and unbridled independence and that there was no justification for having a Ministry to regulate the media or handle the publicity and projection of the government policies. Even their lordships have made certain remarks which transpire that probably they are also not aware about the rationale for regulating media and the need for the government to have a publicity and public relations organ of its own.

I am afraid, the arguments, both for unbridled freedom for media and abolition of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, are inherently flawed and speak volumes about ignorance of the proponents of these views regarding the real role of the media in a society and the obligations of the government towards the people. These contentions are akin to the arguments of the supporters of the Libertarian Theory in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, which has along been discarded and rejected by all the nations who unquestioningly subscribe to the Social Responsibility Theory, which while recognizing the importance of independence of media in a society also obligates it to act responsibly within the parameters set by the ethical values of the society and the laws of the country. The same theory also justifies government intervention in case of an erratic behaviour by the media, because ultimately it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that all institutions within the boundaries of the state are regulated in accordance with the constitution and law in such a manner that they are able to contribute to the over all well being of the people and the state. So there is no concept of unbridled freedom of expression anywhere in the world. Even in the countries where self-regulatory mechanism for the media is in place through Press Councils, the media has certain obligations expressed through the ethical and professional codes of conduct adopted by those bodies, having legal authorization of the state governments. Similarly codes of conduct for media adopted by UNESCO and International Federation of Journalists also bestow some identical obligations on the media. The freedom of expression and independence of media derives its justification from the people’s right to know.

It is also the people’s right to know which obligates the government to keep them informed about its policies and initiatives through media and also put in place measures to project positive image of the country in the comity of nations, which has assumed even greater significance since Pakistan becoming a front line state in the war on terrorism. It is also pertinent to mention that the major source of news for the media are the activities undertaken by the government. So the government does need an organization of its own to handle all these affairs in a well organized and coordinated manner besides regulating the media. Almost all governments around the globe do have their publicity organs with different nomenclatures. In Turkey and Germany the assignment is handled by the Press Information Departments, while in UK it is the Central Office Of Information (COI) which is charged with the responsibility of projecting and selling government policies to the public and keeping them informed. The architect of the Social Responsibility Theory Dr Hutchins remarked “ Freedom comes with responsibility”.

A controversy has also erupted over the list of the journalists presented in the SC by the Ministry of Information on the orders of the former which has been made public. Most of the journalists named in the list for having enjoyed the hospitality of the government on different occasions, being part of the entourage on foreign visits by the Prime Minister and the President and having received financial assistance from the government, have felt incensed by the revelation. There is no cause for indignation or consternation over the issue for two reasons. First, there is nothing unethical about enjoying the hospitality of the government when invited by it for press or background briefings by the VVIPs or accompanying them on foreign tours with all expenses paid by the government. It is a world wide practice, more so in the third world countries, where the media houses do not even pay the journalists according to the wage board awards. Second reason is that it is an international obligation of the government to promote the development of a pluralist media in the country and look after the welfare of the journalists. Grants given to the press clubs and media houses for their development and financial assistance extended to the families of journalists are neither illegal nor unethical. Similarly, the money spent by the ministry on publicity and hiring of services of some the writers to write articles and columns explaining government policies, are legitimate undertakings and the expenditure in this regard is beyond any reproach as it is incurred in the public interest. However, there is no justification for un-audited secret funds. The Ministry must ask the government to provide funds under relevant budgetary heads that are subject to proper audit to eliminate the doubts that have arisen about their wrong use.

If the intentions are really to unveil the black sheep in the media then the focus must shift to the revelation of the names of those media houses who have been getting tax exemptions from the government on the incomes earned from government advertisements and the journalists who have been and are still are on the pay rolls of the intelligence agencies. They are the real black sheep in the media. I am positive that in case of such an eventuality materializing, many known media celebrities will have nowhere to hide.

1 COMMENT

  1. I am totally at sea as to what is the role of Ministery of Information in a Democracy.It may be required in war time which one may argue it is. Well it is NOT.Why do you think that a Minister has the ability to regulate an org and the org has not.This is rubbish.Information Ministry infact "regulates" by coersion or corruption. Both are bad as our experience suggests.To have this white elephant is a burden on exchequer and waste of public money to promote what that govt desires.It must go and with it many evils in media will vanish.

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