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Freedom of Expression with Responsibility and Limitations

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The first decade of 21st Century has seen an unprecedented growth of Media organisations in Pakistan. Today’s modern media sector in Pakistan has been just over a decade in the making. In 2002 the Pakistani government liberalised the broadcast media sector, leading to an explosion of local, privately-owned satellite television channels distributed via cable networks. Between 2002 and 2010, 89 television channels were launched and 26 foreign channels granted broadcast rights. On the radio front, 138 FM radio licences were granted during the same period, of which about 115 had become operational by 2012.
New freedoms have brought uncertainties as well as opportunities to journalists. Overall the profession has suffered from the consequences of liberalisation. In the wake of the abolition of restrictions on who can or cannot practice as a journalist, publish a newspaper or launch a TV station, hundreds of people have entered the profession, without any form of training. Standards of reporting in the new ‘free’ media have suffered as a result.
The transformation in the media as an industry has also changed the working environment of journalists and the role of the media men in the society. Some Journalists seems to be no longer serving the interests of the nation and the state, but they may find themselves serving the interests of the proprietor of the media outlet for which they work or their pay masters. It appears some times that Pakistan’s newly emerging democratic society has almost become the victim of its own need for openness and a liberal media.
It is universally acknowledged that the right to freedom of expression is a foundational human right of the greatest importance. It is a lynchpin of democracy, key to the protection of all human rights, and fundamental to human dignity in its own right. At the same time, it is also universally recognised that it is not an absolute right, and every democracy has developed some system of limitations on freedom of expression.In almost every State of the worldwhere freedom of expression is being protected under the law, national security is the general legal ground for the limitations in these laws.
One important example of these limitations is clearly mentioned in European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The ECHR for instance takes the wording of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights almost intact into its Article 10, but adds important further statements specifying a number of these limits. It clearly mentions in its section 10, ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.
The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence’.
It is clear from the above that freedom of expression is not only important in it, but also plays a vital role in the protection of other rights. However, to what extent can freedom of expression be protected? How it should be exercised? The answer can be found in the European Parliament resolution B6-0136,0138, 0139 and 0141/2006, of 16 February 2006 on the right to freedom of expression :
‘The European Parliament, defends freedom of expression as a fundamental value of the EU; believes that freedom of expression must be exercised within the limits of the law and should coexist with personal responsibility and be based on respect for other’s rights and sensibilities; acknowledges that balancing these concerns necessitates ongoing debate in a democracy.’
All the treaties about human rights allow limitations on freedom of expression when it comes to national security. Alasdair Roberts opines that the tendency to defer to national security was especially strong in times of fear and uncertainty. He wrote:
‘Many well-established democratic states, facing uncertain but potentially fundamental threats to their security, resort to the use of extraordinary powers and an assertion of executive authority. . . . In moments of crisis, when the severity of the threat remains uncertain, it is difficult forcitizens to resist these calls for stronger state powers’.
Pakistan is indeed going through a very fragile period which is full of uncertainties and fundamental threats to national security. The journalists have the responsibility to look for, to respect and communicate the facts only. The media organisations should verify the information in a reasonable manner before printing or broad casting them and should express opinions based mainly on facts. Any clearly false information or those about which the media has reasonable doubts as to their truthfulness shall not be published or broadcasted.
We can clearly see that the key statements on freedom of expression identify limitations. It is clearly not the recognition of limitations that is the main issue, but the precise application of limitations. This is implicit in much of what Feinberg suggests., ‘There is a big difference between communication addressed to an audience consisting of an ordinary individual, a few individuals, or even the general populace, and communication addressed to those who hold power as rulers, elected or unelected, representatives and officials. There is also an appreciable difference between messages put out by individuals on their own responsibility, and messages that originate from officialdom or are circulated by some media organisation’.
A speech or statement made by an individual, a privately printed pamphlet, a letter to a newspaper, or a personal weblog, is one thing. A programme broadcast on TV broadcasted news, column in a newspaper, is another. The latter may possibly represent a journalist’s deeply felt personal view, but it also represents the editorial policy, whether laissez faire or highly directive, of the owners and editors of the media organisation concerned.
In this context, Article 23 of the “Guidelines of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on Protecting Freedom of Expression and Information in times of crisis could be a perfect reference for the Pakistani media professionals;
‘Media professionals need to adhere, especially in times of crisis, to the highest professional and ethical standards, having regard to their special responsibility in crisis situations to make available to the public timely, factual, accurate and comprehensive information while being attentive to the rights of other people, their special sensitivities and their possible feeling of uncertainty and fear.’
It is very unfortunate that few anti-Pakistan elements are using a particular media group as a source of propaganda to promote some special and sometimes obscure interests. It is well known that a particular media organisation in Pakistan has become a tool of an agenda to influence the Pakistani nation for promoting its strategic interests. We must not forget that Pakistan is in a state of war, a different kind of war but, by all means, war. Considering the fact that in war, psychological operation is not the only function which media is called upon to perform in the content of national security, some specialists agree that in a globalise society media becomes a lethal weapon against the enemy, and some time against its own state and nation as well.
The link between national security, freedom of expression and media is so tight and at the same time, so risky to comment. Today, Pakistan is characterised by new threats, new security vulnerabilities, new friends and new opponents. In this climatemedia and freedom of expression will be immensely strengthened by seeking a clearer common understanding of ethics and good practices, and a renewal of the mission of news media to act in the national interest. Pakistani media and journalism will be strengthened by more internal transparency and a greater and more genuine commitment to holding themselves accountable.More responsible corporate governance among media companies is essential if media in Pakistan has to become sustainable.

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