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[David A. Andelman] Pakistan‘s slippery censorship slope

NEW YORK -- When it comes to determining what is appropriate for a free press to report and publish, government regulation by any name is censorship. And censorship, especially in a democracy, is a slippery slope indeed. This would appear to be the path the Pakistani government is tracing with its efforts to ban reporting of terrorist incidents and their consequences.

The plan to ban coverage of terrorism in Pakistani media was put forward by politicians who think the coverage of the consequences of terrorism by the nation’s broadcast media -- especially in the volatile North-West Frontier Province -- is exaggerated and irresponsible. They also feel it sometimes portrays the government in a negative light.

A measure has been introduced by a parliamentary committee banning such coverage or indeed “anything defamatory against the organs of the state.” The law, which is expected to come before the full parliament for debate this summer, would require that violators be punished by fines of up to $117,000 or three years in prison.

In my 40 years as a correspondent, editor and commentator, reporting from more than 60 countries, I have encountered many governments‘ efforts to muzzle or regulate what media are reporting. Such actions have never served the interests nor security of the people of the nation. The absence of a free and unfettered press is the first and most jarring indication that democracy is in jeopardy.

Indeed a potent media is quite often the best and most effective check on unbridled government power that abuses or curbs personal liberties. There are several realities the government of Pakistan has failed to consider as it strives desperately to put a lid on the activities of extremists that threaten to overwhelm the nation and its security services.

First is the issue that one individual’s terrorist is another‘s freedom fighter. Any effort to define a terrorist risks alienating many of the very people that the government desperately needs to win over if it is ever to regain control of vast stretches of the nation that have become increasingly alienated from mainstream Pakistani society. Moreover, the absence of news is a vacuum quickly filled by rumor and innuendo.

In this globally connected world, a host of other sources of information will quickly step into the breach. Would the government of Pakistan prefer that Qatar’s al-Jazeera replace the news outlets Dawn, Indus or Geo -- each Pakistani owned and operated? Or for that matter should the BBC, Voice of America or CNN, Deutsche Welle, France 24, Russia Today or Xinhua TV become the main go-to source of news for Pakistanis?

A host of private radios and Internet operations outside Islamabad‘s control would inevitably begin beaming their own version of events into the most volatile regions, especially the North-West Frontier Province. Such vehicles may themselves be controlled by the very insurgents and extremists that the government is so anxious to prevent its people from embracing.

As a compromise to head off outright government oversight of their reportage, Pakistan’s eight principal television networks have proposed a regime of self-censorship -- which is likely to produce similar results. However, trust between the media and their audiences is perhaps the most critical issue facing news media today, which cannot be strengthened by censorship.

Facts, however difficult to accept, however emotionally stirring, inevitably prevail. The reporting of al-Jazeera and other Arab media on the atrocities committed by Western, especially American, troops in Iraq is the most immediate example of how full and fair reporting can actually energize people to action.

Moreover, in the case of Pakistan, burying such events with bans and censorship is also likely to demonstrate the weakness and fear of the government.

Going forward, there are two potential paths: cooperation or confrontation. Joint counsel can help the government understand the role being played by a free and fair media, on the one hand, and can help the media to understand the possible impact of portraying extreme images of blood and mayhem. Such decisions are made every day in the editing rooms of major global media, but they must be motivated by taste and relevance, not by fear of the heavy hand of a government censor.

By David A. Andelman

David A. Andelman is editor of World Policy Journal, the author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919” and the “Price We Pay Today.” -- Ed.

(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)
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