Defending the Media – By Najam Sethi

Najam Sethi

Najam Sethi

Before you start reading the below given editorial of The Friday Times, I think the best thing for the Pakistani media to express solidarity with Daily Aaj Kal would be to reproduce the controversial cartoon in all the Pakistani newspapers on the Danish model. We have to take such bold initiatives if we are determined to fight religious fanaticism.

Defending the Media
By Najam Sethi

First it was The Friday Times. Then it was Daily Times. Now it is Daily Aajkal. All three papers are at the receiving end of credible threats from radical religious extremists to change their editorial policies which espouse liberal, democratic, progressive and humanist values. The Taliban have forcibly stopped the sale of Daily Aajkal in FATA and hurled menacing warnings at the paper in Peshawar. The latest threats and incitement to violence come from the mullahs of the Lal Masjid and their network in Islamabad and Punjab.

The pretext is a cartoon in Aajkal of Umme Hassaan, the fiery wife of Maulana Abdul Aziz of the Lal Masjid. It shows her teaching the virtues of jihad and kidnapping to her students, a reference to her statements on the need to wage violent jihad and the kidnapping of five Chinese carried out by her Lal Masjid activists last year. Mrs Hassaan claims the cartoon is blasphemous like the Danish cartoons. But by so insisting, she is putting herself on the same pedestal as the Prophet of Islam (pbuh), which is truly blasphemous. Actually, she cannot stand the thought of being the object of satirical comment even though her brand of radical politics is much more objectionable than that of most double-dealing politicians who are daily lampooned by the media. The only difference is that while politicians take cartoons in their stride, as they should according to the rules of the democratic game, the self-righteous radical clerics are prone to use violent means to stifle dissent or adverse comment. This is what they did in Algeria and in Egypt where hundreds of journalists were assassinated in the 1990s because they dared to oppose their brand of extremist politics.

In the world of today where information is delivered on the second into every house via cable or satellite, everyone needs to be on the right side of the media. Two issues constantly arise – the extent of media freedom and its relationship with media responsibility. There are no hard and fast rules except one: media freedom ends only where someone else’s freedom is violated. This media “freedom” is defined by well known laws like the law of defamation and the law of contempt, and an independent judiciary is the final arbiter of who is right and who is wrong. But violence cannot be allowed to stifle debate or dissent.

In recent times, two major repressions stand out in particular. Nawaz Sharif lashed out at the Jang Group and The Friday Times in 1999. And General Pervez Musharraf pulled the plug on a number of TV channels in 2007, wounding the Geo/Jang group the most. But both strategies were doomed to fail as Mr Sharif and General Musharraf can testify.

Significantly, non-state actors armed with weapons and/or passionate ideologues are increasingly “using” the Pakistani media or “exploiting” it for the propagation of their ideas and interests. But serious problems arise when any section of the media doesn’t agree with their policies or seeks to expose their narrow interests or anti-state positions. In democratic societies, the law takes its course for the resolution of such disputes or differences of opinion. But in non-democratic societal cultures, like that of Pakistan, such non-state actors are often inclined to use threat of violence or actual violence to silence media critics or affect editorial policy changes to suit their goals.

The classic example that used to be given in Pakistan about non-state actors using violent means and direct threats to bring the media in line was that of the MQM in Karachi. The MQM is a cadre based ethnic party that has a criminal and fascist record even though it is avowedly secular. But the media has managed to survive despite its violent threats and practices. However, the latest menace to the media emanates from radical extremist fundamentalist religious belief that goes under the name of “political Islamism”. It is self-righteous, self-obsessed and intolerant. Various armed groups professing jihad and Talibanism are now trying to capture the imagination of the free media and mould it according to their view and version of world events. They are doing this largely by invoking fear and retribution. How should the media react to this latest threat to its integrity?

The primary responsibility of protecting the media lies with the armed state. But where the state abdicates such responsibility, either because it has a dubious relationship with such non-state religious groups or because it cannot defend and enforce its writ against them because of internal weaknesses, both of which are relevant in the case of the Pakistani state, the media has no choice but to band together and close ranks despite internal strains and stresses of personalities, egos and commercial interests. Indeed, when some of us are attacked thus, it is time not only to boycott the propagandistic activities of such non-state actors but to openly criticize them at every opportunity. When journalists can routinely threaten to boycott politicians and proceedings in parliament, and agitate against government for not accepting their demands, why can’t they unite and react similarly when these religious vigilantes threaten any of us?

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