Another stab from the state on media freedoms
By Haroon Baloch
Immediate reactions from the government after Peshawar tragedy also included abolishing the moratorium on death penalty. A decision which is being criticized heavily from the moderate and liberal segments of the society, forging another opportunity for public to express their views openly in molding the outdated, yet prevailing narrative driven by the conservative sympathizers of radicals.
Initially, both the conservatives and liberals began rather in a traditional mudslinging style. But the importantly people exercised their right to express eloquently once again on a very sensitive issue, especially if we look it through the prism of so called ‘national security’ and the prevailing threat from the radicals.
A series of social society activities attracted a vast attention offline and online, including candle light vigils and protests from the civil society organizations, rich with public attendance and media presence.
The capital witnessed an unprecedented happening where members belonging to civil society led a peaceful protest to condemn the mindset of notorious Lal Masjid Khateeb, Maulana Abdul Aziz because he refused to condemn Peshawar tragedy on a national television program. He also maintained that Operation Zarb-e-Azb was not the solution of Pakistan’s issues and appeared instead to support the terrorists. A public protest against a mosque, even one with a bloody history like the Lal Masjid was previously unimaginable in Pakistan. Lal Masjid clergy did not tolerate the peaceful assembly of citizens resisting the radical narrative and registered First Information Report (FIR) against the participants of the protest, which led to mercurial participation of public in the protests in coming days.
The war of words on the social media, explicitly Twitter and Facebook played a crucial role in building the counter narrative to extremists’ account during entire week, ultimately strengthening the cause of countering the radicals’ narrative. This support was not only limited to social media, but equally translated into peaceful assembly of crowd at the ground.
Entire series of activities genuinely was reflective of the society’s mass rejection of the ideology of radicals and terrorism, which at a time enjoyed support from their sympathizers within the society.
But as usual the quandary crept in, not surprisingly from anyone else, but the state itself claiming that the media was ‘glorifying’ the terrorism and, especially the social media has vigorously been promoting the extremists’ narrative and needed attention.
The National Assembly Standing Committee on Information and Broadcasting headed by Marvi Memon, in a quick succession of just two meetings, without seeking proper input from all relevant quarters, especially the practitioners, called for urgent regulation of social media.
The committee proposed that mechanisms to track social media for abuse by terrorist groups are the domain of National Counter-Terrorism Authority (NACTA), and social media must be monitored rigorously keeping all guidelines proposed for traditional media in view.
Now that set of recommendations contains 69 proposals including suggested amendments in the existing laws related to media in Pakistan. The entire exercise will undoubtedly lead to limiting the freedom of expression both offline and online, rather than tightening the noose around the terrorists as the document claims.
The recommendations such as penalizing individual journalists; disclosure of sources before airing or publishing information; appointment of in house monitoring committees and notifying their editorial boards to the government and state directives to take punitive action in case editorial lapse etc. are clear examples of imposing restrictions on freedom of expression.
In a society like Pakistan where human rights are blatantly violated without consequence, limitations on free speech by the state under the pretext of countering terrorists’ discourse is like cutting the nose to spite the face; the sacrifice of free speech, and making media a tool of state propaganda in the name of counter terrorism narrative, is not a solution to terrorism, in fact it only adds to the problems that plague the Pakistani society.
Among others, the best strategy to counter terrorists’ discourse would be to use media as a tool to surface a plurality of discourses that differ from the terrorists and allowing public debate to happen around those discourses. The state can also confront the terrorist narrative by directly using the media space to reach out to the public and offer a strong national narrative and involving the media in discussing the state narrative rather than binding them to frame all the content within it. The role of the media is to scrutinize policies and actions of the government in order to help them improve – taking away that role leaves media weak and unable to perform its true function in a democracy.
As far as war of narratives on social media is concerned, it might have been more prudent for the state to have taken dedicated technology geeks and social media savvy intellectuals with vast followings into the confidence, explain the government’s own policy narrative and ask them help in dissemination of a counter narrative to the terrorists online. Involving media and media practitioners in the national cause by creating friends in the industry through right based policies would definitely be a more result-oriented approach than creating foes by trying to place media in a straitjacket.
It was perhaps, easier for the government functionaries to gather people and bureaucrats of their own choice and come up with recommendations to curtail the freedoms of media to serve their interests in the broad perspective. Unfortunately, by taking this approach the government has ended up provoking media and civil society, rather than bringing them on one page to define a truly progressive and constructive role to counter terrorism.