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World Press Freedom Day, declared by the UN General Assembly in 1993, is since observed every year on May 3. Across the world, including Pakistan, the Day was commemorated to spotlight the importance of freedom of expression, as enshrined under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The right to access (unadulterated) information is one of the fundamental rights recognized under the UN Charter.

Press freedom constitutes the basic difference between open and progressive societies on the one hand and oligarchic dispensations that thrive on secrecy, repression and kleptomania on the other. Hence a free press and dictatorial dispensations are the antithesis of each other. It has been observed in many societies by now that the vacuum created by an information void is usually filled with distortions and propaganda, which suits only the objectives of those at the helm. Viewed in the broader context, freedom of information can be used as an effective tool to combat lack of knowledge, corruption and misgovernance.

One of the causes of the myriads of ills in Pakistan has been a history of stringent curbs on media freedom, not uncommon in third world countries, with kleptocratic ruling elites thriving in a blacked-out environment. In such ‘closed’ societies, coercive methods are the usual recourse to make journalists toe the dotted line. In our country these methods have ranged from the notorious ‘press advice’ of the Ayub era to the heavy-handed methods of Ziaul Haq.

Some ‘democratic’ dispensations too have not shirked from using Machiavellian tactics to force or manipulate the media to paint a picture that favours the image of the incumbent rulers. World Press Freedom Day has highlighted the grave dangers the practitioners of the craft expose themselves to, particularly in conflict situations, a description that aptly fits Pakistan. As the media serves as a mirror that reflects objective reality, absolutist dispensations in Pakistan have tended to ‘shoot the messenger’ rather than pay attention to the message, a message often helpful, even when, or especially when, critical of the existing state of affairs, for the incumbents themselves.

In the last decade or so, the media has achieved unprecedented freedom in Pakistan, reinforced by the opening up of the electronic media to the private sector. With so much freedom also comes greater responsibility, an area in which the media in Pakistan still has a long way to go.
Press freedom is closely linked to the financial stability of journalists, which has fallen prey in Pakistan to the economic recession. Media owners and publishers have often resorted to inflicting the pain of straitened economic and financial circumstances onto the shoulders of working journalists, who end up ‘financing’ media enterprises through their unpaid dues. Responsible media owners and publishers know that this is a crisis from which the earlier they relieve their businesses, and thereby the backbone of the media industry, the working journalists, the better for the industry’s health.

The institution of professional editor has been compromised by the entry of owner-editors, which has blurred the necessary distinction between commercial considerations and journalistic ethics. Journalists in the field are under threat from both state and non-state actors. Pakistan holds the dubious distinction of not only being labelled ‘the most dangerous country in the world’, but also the most dangerous for journalists. This is obviously a reflection of the conflicts raging within our society and as a spin off of the conflict in neighbouring Afghanistan, which have combined to make the task of truthful and objective journalism harder than ever.

One only has to recall the cases of Saleem Shahzad and Wali Babar, to name just two victims, to realize the gravity of the situation that confronts most journalists. The empowerment of the media has unfortunately introduced in its wake the generalised corruption culture that afflicts our society. World Press Freedom Day should serve as a reminder to all of us of what needs to be done to address the murky crannies of the profession, and how to use that freedom to help establish an open, democratic society in Pakistan. *

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