Monday, 25 March 2013

Media landscape and polls

Courtesy:- Malik Muhammad Ashraf

Balanced media coverage for 2013 elections

The report of the Hutchison Commission submitted in the USA in 1947 is regarded as the Magna Carte of the modern concept of freedom of expression and media’s responsibilities towards society. It unequivocally emphasized the need for media to provide accurate, truthful and comprehensive account of events, act as a forum for exchange of comment and criticism, present and clarify goals and values of the society and make sure that it projected a representative picture of the constituent groups of the society. The report also reiterated the fact that society and public had a right to expect high standards of performance and as such intervention of the government could be justified to secure public good.

The ethical and professional codes of conduct for the media drawn up by UNESCO, International Federation of Journalists, media associations, press councils in the countries where self-regulatory arrangement is in place and the code of ethics which forms the part of Press Council Ordinance in Pakistan invariably espouse the principles of the Social Responsibility theory. The spirit of Social Responsibility is that freedom comes with responsibility. The concept of media being fourth pillar of the state stems from the belief that media represents the society and such is a defining characteristic of the social, cultural, political and economic systems of a country.

Judged on the touchstone of the foregoing, the media landscape in Pakistan is not as enviable as it ought to be. While it zealously tends to maintain and protect its freedom –and rightly so - it is not showing the sense of social responsibility that goes with freedom of expression. The media, regrettably, like the political polarization in the country, is also divided into anti-government, pro-government, and right-wing groups, with each entity trying to rub-in its own skewed and partisan views on national issues and even resorting to smear campaigns against their supposed rivals.

A pluralist media disseminating unvarnished and truthful information about events to society and acting as a forum for free, unbiased and non-partisan debate on issues of national importance, is indispensable entity in a democratic dispensation. In fact, a pluralist media and democracy compliment and reinforce each other and the former can play its role as the fourth pillar of the state more effectively in a democratic environment.

However, despite the existing inadequacies of the media, I am of the considered view that the freedom of expression enjoyed by the media in Pakistan currently is the best thing that has ever happened in this land of the pure. The media, notwithstanding the indiscretions committed in disregard to the internationally recognized ethical and professional codes of conduct, can rightly boast of making a sterling contribution that it made during the lawyers movement for the restoration of the judiciary and protecting and strengthening the cause of democracy during the last five years. The outgoing PPP-led coalition government also deserves appreciation for tolerating erratic behaviour of a section of the media and remaining committed to providing an enabling environment for the media to enjoy freedom of expression.

Media has to be mindful of the fact that there is no concept of unbridled concept of freedom of expression anywhere in the world. It is, ultimately, the responsibility of the government to make sure that while enjoying its freedom the media remains within the internationally recognized parameters of freedom of expression and the obligations towards society and the state. It does not have the right to use the freedom of expression as a license to misinform the public or promote fissiparous tendencies in the society. As a protector of fundamental liberties of the people and a watchdog against the government, it has to make sure that the job is done objectively and honestly. Resorting to falsehood, misreporting, distorting facts and dishing out speculative stuff does not fall in the domain of freedom of expression. This kind of behaviour is not tolerated even in the societies which boast of freedom of media as the hallmark of their polity. During the US elections in 2000, the bulk of the media relying on the data from exit polls and vote projections gathered by Voters News Service (VNS), which included ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX, NBC AND AP and its subsidiaries such as New York Times declared before the close of the polls mistakenly that Al Gore had won the state of Florida and thus the Presidency. Later the same media claimed that George W. Bush had won. Following the elections, several members of Congress made veiled threats of government regulation of media but backed away after network executives vowed during the congressional hearings not to project winners until polls had closed. And in spite of an expansive overall of the computer system, VNS was disbanded. It was simply a case of wrong predictions.

Now that the democracy seems to have taken roots in the country and the people are going to exercise their right of franchise to decide who runs the state affairs for the next five years, the media has a still greater role in consolidating the gains of democracy. It has to use its power to change perceptions and helping people to make informed choices during the coming elections in a judicious manner. It is obligatory on it to rise above all considerations but national interest. Almost all political parties are on the election trail and some have already announced their manifestos on which they claim to win public franchise.

The ensuing elections are being billed as a defining moment in the history of Pakistan and shall be a milestone which will determine the direction the country will take in the future. The media has to make sure that it keeps itself away from taking sides, playing favourites or presenting an unbalanced picture of the election campaign. It has to inform and educate the public about the challenges that are at hand, discuss the manifestoes of all the parties in an objective manner and curb the propensities to scandalize things or portraying issues tinged with biases of any kind. This is how the media can make the ensuing elections a meaningful exercise in promoting democracy and the installation of a truly representative government in the country.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Doubts over Iran-Pakistan pipeline

Courtesy:- Malik Muhammad Ashraf

More to gas pipeline project than point scoring

The Pak-Iran gas pipeline is not only important for energy starved Pakistan but also for Iran in terms of diluting the impact of UN and US sanctions against it for refusing to abandon its nuclear programme but also to show the world that it was not isolated, more so in its own region. The groundbreaking ceremony of the Pakistani section of the pipeline on 11 March despite US threats of sanctions against Pakistan, provides much required props to Iran to reinforce that notion.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Propagation of wrong notions

Courtesy:-  Malik Muhammad Ashraf

The ECP is a constitutional body bound to work within the framework of the constitution and the existing law

The speculations about an interim set-up for a longer period and postponement of elections had hardly died down, when another non-issue has been stoked into a pivot, courtesy a hyper active section of media. A sustained campaign is being run to create doubts about the ability of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to hold free and fair elections, in the wake of difference of opinion between the ECP and the government over the changes proposed by the latter in the nomination forms for the candidates and extension in the scrutiny period. It is also being alleged that all political parties represented in parliament, including the major opposition party Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz in collusion with the government are trying to protect the corrupt elements with a view to pave the way for their return to parliament, the government by not agreeing to the proposed changes and the opposition parties by not backing the ECP on the issue. Even two members of the ECP have come out with statements that they wanted to catch the ‘thieves’ but government has thwarted that move. They have also expressed the view that the proposed rules have been sent to the president as a formality and the ECP can go ahead without the approval of the president.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Democracy is here to stay

Courtesy:-  S Rahman   

Attending a seminar addressed the other day by Federal Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira and senior journalists, on ‘Why is democracy essential for Pakistan’, the speakers talked at length on the issues confronting the country on the path of democracy but the gist of the seminar, as summed up by Kaira, was democracy is the only way out of all the crises, whether political, economic, social or sectarian.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

The right to decide

Courtesy:-  Malik Muhammad Ashraf

In international relations, the foremost considerations are serving, protecting and upholding national interests, mutuality of interests between states and fulfilling obligations that come with being a member of the international community. The point of reference invariably should be the advancement of national objectives in consonance with the aspirations of the people. But the Pak-US relationship, regrettably, has been contrary to these considerations.

The relations between the two countries have mostly served Washington’s strategic and global interests at Islamabad’s expense. Successive Pakistani governments have maintained this one-sided relationship, despite high anti-US feelings existing among the people. Several examples can be quoted, which reveal that rulers and people in Pakistan have been poles apart on international and foreign policy issues.

Pakistan’s alliance with the US, by choice or coerced partnership (as seems to be the case in the war on terror), has greatly jeopardised its national interests. For more than six decades, both civilian and military governments never dared to change the direction and focus of the country’s foreign policy.

Surely, Pakistan’s policy of building alliances with the West, especially USA, on unequal terns have been a negation of its national interests, as well as geographical realties, inextricably linked to this region.

Having said that, the present PPP-led government, despite having a number of inadequacies and failing to deal with the challenges it inherited after the 2008 elections, has - in the domain of foreign policy - certainly made a marked departure from the past philosophy of heavy reliance on the US and other western nations. It has further developed relations with China and Russia, building regional alliances, joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), reactivating the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO) and giving a new direction to our sagging relations with Iran. This paradigm shift in the conduct of foreign relations is a remarkable move, keeping in view the emerging geopolitical realities of the South Asian region.

The federal government’s decision to go ahead with the Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline project, despite unrelenting pressure from the US and its tactics to lure Pakistan out of this commitment, speaks volumes about its boldness and political sagacity. The project, which has remained in doldrums since it was conceived in the mid-nineties and, consequently, no government took the risk of annoying Washington, is like a lifeline for the energy-starved country.

Undoubtedly, the civilian government has proved its credentials as the custodian of national interests by having the project approved from the Cabinet on January 30, followed by President Asif Zardari’s visit to Iran for the signing of the agreement. In the wake of signing the agreement, the US has again threatened to impose sanctions on Pakistan in case it went ahead with the project.

It is encouraging to note that the government has stood firm and refused to accept any pressure. President Zardari, while recently talking to senior journalists and media men in Lahore, said: “As an independent nation, Pakistan is free to decide its future and the IP gas pipeline project will be completed at every cost. Nobody has the power to halt it, as the project does not violate any international law.” This statement, indeed, reflects the unflinching determination of the government for the project’s completion and its commitment to respect international laws.

Here it is important to mention that the sanctions imposed on Iran by the UN pertain to the oil sector only and do not cover the ventures concerning gas transmission lines. Also, the US and EU have imposed some sanction on Iran on their own, but Pakistan is not bound to honour them.

Pakistan is located in the South Asian region. Its security and economic prosperity is inextricably linked to this region and mutually beneficial relations with neighbours. Following this approach is in the long-term interest of Pakistan.

Against this backdrop, the US claims to be a friend of Pakistan, but acts quite contrary to what a friend is supposed to do. It wants Pakistan to refrain from going ahead with the IP project because of its differences with Iran. However, it must remember that relations between nations are not conducted on the basis of ‘my enemy is your enemy’. Every nation in its sovereign capacity has the right to decide what is in its best national interest.

It is said that “there are no permanent friends or enemies” in international relations. The relations between the US and Iran during the Shah era and now is a case in point. Further, if the USA and Russia can cooperate with each other in the international field on case to case basis despite being rivals during the Cold War, then there is a possibility that we might see a reversal of the enmity that exists between Washington and Tehran.

Perhaps, Pakistan - being a friend of both the US and Iran - could play the role of an intermediary and help them to tide over their differences like it did in the rapprochement between the US and China in the early seventies. However, if Pakistan keeps toeing the US line in the matter, it will undoubtedly have adverse affects on its relations with Iran; and in case Washington and Tehran re-establish their ties, Pakistan will find itself in an awkward position.

Needless to say, the US must adopt a realistic approach. It must not allow its relations with Iran to affect its relations with Pakistan. The pressure tactics used by the US to keep Pakistan away from the IP gas pipeline project are viewed as an unfriendly act that will precipitate anti-American sentiments in Pakistan. The US, therefore, needs to revisit its approach to the issue.

As a final word, the PPP-led coalition government has taken the right decision and it must stick to it like it has done so far. It is, indeed, a monumental step in regard to national interests and quest to regain our lost sovereignty.

IP a moment of rejoicing

Courtesy:-  S Rahman

It is indeed a moment of rejoicing. The people are happy that the government of Pakistan has finally resolved to go ahead with the Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline. People are yet happier that the
 rumor mills have come to a standstill that was bent upon tarnishing the image of PPP-led government and the PPP Co-Chairman and President, Asif Ali Zardari.