The state of Pakistan has been extraordinarily fond of censoring ideas and opinions that may be expressed in any form — in the media, in academic discourse or at public forums — and now the media is apprehending a new design to gag it, in the form of a single regulatory law for electronic, print and digital media.
The history of censorship in Pakistan stretches from the attempt to censor the Quaid-i-Azam’s speech on August 11, 1947 to the apparent bar to media coverage of acts of arson and vandalism committed by a religio-political group a month ago. During the intervening years successive governments have devised ever new forms of censorship to restrict the freedom of expression.
The use of ‘press advice’ started in the early years of independence to prohibit publication of reports, ideas or opinions disliked by the authorities for any reason, or without any reason, continues to this day in one form or another. The advice in writing that helped Zamir Niazi to depict the travails of a press in chains and expose the web of censorship has been replaced by other, less easily traceable means. These forms include verbal counsel by a visitor or on the phone or a threat of dire consequences if some facts are revealed in print or in a broadcast, or in a speech at a public forum, or a particular theme is chosen for discussion at a public forum, or some blacklisted persons are allowed to speak.
Then we have had several cycles of censorship. The Martial Law Administrator of Lahore in 1953 considered publication of a report of increase in the price of eggs in Pattoki a threat to his mandate to restore order. Such ideas were developed further by the Ayub and Yahya regimes and perfected by General Ziaul Haq who subjected the newspapers to pre-censorship for years on end. Faiz’s verse was censored because the censor did not like the homeland being described as a forest of yellow leaves, an Aesop fable was censored because the animal in it reminded him (the censor) of the big boss, and in addition to an Abul Kalam’s essay on Imam Husain’s martyrdom a Quranic verse denouncing the Pharaoh also was censored.
In order to save the censor the trouble of scanning the pages of publications and listening to endless broadcasts to detect material that needs to be censored, Pakistan’s rulers have been trying to surpass other countries in restricting the freedom of expression through legal instruments. The process began with making the freedom of expression enshrined in Article 19 of the Constitution subject to “any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, commission of or incitement to an offence”.
The grounds for circumscribing freedom of expression given in the Article quoted above have been incorporated into and enlarged in each new version of laws applicable to the media. The desire to protect the state, belief and certain institutions is understandable but the concepts and expressions used in legal texts can be, and have been, interpreted differently. Vague language of laws gives the authorities a long handle to interpret them as broadly as desired, contrary to the dictum that restrictive laws must be narrowly and precisely interpreted.
For example, the Electronic Media Code of Conduct, which has perhaps the longest list of don’ts, prohibits the airing of content that “is against the Islamic values, ideology of Pakistan or founding fathers of the nation, including Quaid-i-Azam and Dr Allama Mohammad Iqbal”. Now, what is meant by “against Quaid-i-Azam?” And the Quaid and the Allama are included among the founding fathers and the possibility of discovering more founding fathers is kept open.
Further, the state is not content with using censorship to protect itself; it reaches out to protect the services and the lowest of its functionaries. There was a time when publishing stories of corruption by patwaris and foot constables was not allowed and the excuse was danger of spreading disaffection. As the state has moved away from democratic and welfare ideals and the security state syndrome is in command, the space for the media has drastically shrunk.
Unfortunately, the state is not alone in wielding the weapon of censorship. The religious orthodoxy also enforces censorship by interpreting the “glory of Islam” the way it likes. Its latest edict pronounces anathema on anyone approving the Supreme Court verdict in Aasia Bibi case.
Besides, all censorship is not wrapped in legality. One cannot exclude unlawful punishment awarded to newspapers for their reports of state excesses in any part of Pakistan or banning the distribution of publications in certain areas from censorial acts. Such actions spur militant outfits to tell the editors what to publish and how.
Finally, the scourge of self-censorship. Faiz’s publisher censored some lines in his famous poem, Sar-i-vadi-i-Seena, without intimation to him. The media houses that depend on state ads and its goodwill cannot resist its diktat, a fact that invited censure from Justice Faez Isa of the Supreme Court the other day. As speaking the truth becomes more and more hazardous, practically everybody in the media is resorting to self-censorship and hopes that the devil will take only the hindmost.
Other instances of censorship to legalise taboos in the name of regulation of vehicles of expression of ideas through any form of communication — printed text, electronic messages, and social media — are also available.
The Punjab News Agencies, Publications and Printing Presses Ordinance of 2010 bars publication or broadest of any material “that is likely to jeopardous or be prejudicial to the ideology of Punjab or the sovereignty or security of Punjab”. Does anyone know what the ideology of Punjab is or what is meant by sovereignty of Punjab? Where concepts are not clear the net to suppress dissent can be as wide as any authority may wish.
There can be no two opinions about the disastrous consequences of any form of censorship. It keeps the people ignorant of facts they should know to be able to face challenges to the state’s integrity, its progress and people’s rights. The best example of this kind of harm of censorship is the disintegration of Pakistan after a decade of ‘stability’ and “development” under the Ayub regime. The people in the Western Wing remained ignorant of the degree of East Bengal’s alienation from the state till it was too late to control the damage.
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Censorship also prevents the people from probing the areas of activity, social values and academic theories and thus curtails the growth of new ideas. And censorship in the form of a bar to frank intra-religion discourse, we have seen, strengthens conservative and traditionalist interpretation of belief and pushes the people back in time. Self-censorship in all these areas amounts to abandoning the benefits of critical thinking and rational analysis.
The real question is how to grow out of the web of censorship, to borrow again an apt phrase from Zamir Niazi, that matchless campaigner against any curbs on human mind and the freedom to think and develop independent theories. Since censorship deprives the people of their right to say what they consider necessary to be said, they are the biggest losers. But in countries like Pakistan the people have been led to reject free debate. Their indifference to the fallout of censorship enables the authorities to get away with wide-ranging restraints on the freedom of expression.
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So long as the people do not realise that the right to freedom of speech, opinion and expression and access to information are their fundamental rights and are not rights exclusively conferred on the media, things will not change for the better. They must re-read the opening words of Article 19 — “Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression…”. “Every citizen,” it says. Unless the people can take a stand on their rights, the media will not be able to fight for its rights. In a slumbering society even the judges cannot defend the rule of law.