Responsibility Of The Press: A Citizen’s View

Zameer Niazi Sahib, Asma Jahangir Sahiba, Justice Nasir Alam Zahid, ladies and gentlemen

It is a great honour to have been asked by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan to address the gathering. The honour is so much greater since this event is associated with the names of two great men, Nisar Usmani and Zameer Niazi.

I have been asked to present the citizen’s view point regarding the responsibility of the press. However, I can only present the point of view of a citizen. Moreover, it is a biased view point; biased by the work I do and which is related to physical and social development. I apologise for this bias and for the absence of any grand theory, high moral and ethical principles, or even democratic ones, in what I am going to say.

I have read the Pakistani press for the last 40 years. I must acknowledge that today it has far more information and news on global, regional and local affairs than it had 10 years ago. It has a lot more analysis and a larger variety of views. It has kept up with the media revolution and with the times. This is especially true of journalism on economic affairs. New themes not spoken of before, such as political economy, environment and development are sometimes touched upon.

The difference between Urdu and English press is often discussed. However, the serious Urdu press voices the same concerns as the serious English press. The difference between the two is very much related to the different manner in which one conceptualises in the two languages. While travelling through Pakistan by road or train, one often picks up popular Urdu newspapers. They contain gossip, highly defamatory analysis, foul language and gross exaggeration. This trend disturbs but one has to understand that it is part and parcel of the new populist culture that dominates our existence and points to the need for institutionalising this culture. I can safely say that when dealing with political issues, international affairs and news, the Pakistani press is as good or as bad as any in the region.

It is universally accepted that the function of the press is to inform and influence all sections of the state and society within a framework of ethics of which truth, from whatever political and social perception, is the most important factor. But for information to make sense the press also has to educate, because very often news alone does not educate, but creates confusion and wrong perceptions. This, one can say that without consciously educating and raising awareness, the press cannot influence effectively.

To inform, educate and influence effectively the press also has to understand the larger context within which political, social and economic change is taking place and the actors and factors involved in it. It is here that events have overtaken our press just as they have overtaken our academia and so-called intelligentsia. Of the three, the press is the only one that is trying to catch up. I will elaborate on this issue.

Our struggle for the partition of India, was bye and large a constitutional one, even where mass movements were involved. Its aims were democratic and it was led by an elite in a society that was stable and well-structured. State and private sector institutions functioned effectively and were not questioned except by a small radical minority that for the most part also belonged to the elite. The press played an important role in this struggle and it informed and mobilised our people. As a result, a certain press culture and vocabulary developed which was dominated by politics with a big P.

Again, after Independence, the major issues that surfaced in Pakistan were related to the political nature of the state, constitutional issues, struggle against dictatorial regimes and their violation of various freedoms, and the continuous struggle for democracy. In all these issues, a major section of the Pakistani press took a brave stand and played a leading role in the struggle for democracy. Nisar Usmani and Zameer Niazi are the stalwarts of such a role.

While all this was going on major changes were taking place in Pakistani society. These changes passed unnoticed by the press, intelligentsia and academia. They have yet to be understood, let alone supported or regulated. They are the result of First World initiated development policies that were only half implemented, never questioned and never analysed. And how could they be; they were never made public. The only opposition to these development policies came from the socialist viewpoint and that opposition too was of a rhetorical nature and was not based on any investigation or social reality.

This development over the last 50 years has led to a massive physical and social dislocation in our country and as a result, well-established patterns of production and collective action have been wiped out and millions have left their homes and moved to the cities. How colossal this dislocation is needs to be expressed, because it, more than the aborted democratic process, is responsible for the symptoms we continually (the press especially) discuss and attack. The post partition refugee migration into Pakistan, especially from Eastern Punjab, is also a part and parcel of this dislocation.

In the rural areas the introduction of green revolution technologies in the late 1950’s and 60’s, resulted in the introduction of a cash economy which made the old social structure redundant and its institutions unworkable. Rural society based on caste, barter and the inter-dependence between agriculturists and artisans died and in the process destroyed village self-sufficiency and forced large scale rural-urban migration. The gowcher and shamlaat lands were taken over by whoever was powerful enough and as a result the rural landless became destitutes. Due to these changes property and personal law could no longer be dealt with by jirgas and panchayats.

Cash and the green revolution technologies brought about a change in the agricultural mode of production. This led to the emergence of a services sector of various types of businesses and middlemen which have slowly emerged as a powerful interest group. The Bedford, and then the Suzuki, revolutionised marketing, changing the location and nature of the mandi towns and also the nature of their relationship with the farms.

As a result of the changes mentioned above, the whole countryside in Pakistan (peasants, fishermen, farmers) is mortgaged to arthis, bayparis and transporters. In the changed social and economic environment, the feudal system can no longer fulfil its old responsibilities and as a result, rural infrastructure is no longer maintained. Canals and drainage channels are not desilted, there is no water management at the local level, and there is large scale water-logging as a result. The feudal system survives on kinetic energy and we all attack it and consider its death a panacea for all our ills. However, a new system that is consolidating itself is never talked about or analysed. Yet, it is a powerful political reality and unlike old feudalism it has strong urban links. What are the socio-cultural repercussions of this new reality? Who are its actors? What are its processes and what is it relationships with the political structure? We do know that in the district council elections the representatives of this new reality have defeated the nominees of big feudal interest all over Pakistan in a fairly big way. When will they contest national and provincial level elections? What is preventing them from doing so now?

Let us now turn to the urban areas. The urban population of Pakistan had increased from eight million in 1951 to 45 million today. The state and the related organised sector serves the housing needs of only 26 per cent of this population; employment needs of 28 per cent; and water and sanitation needs of 20 per cent. The unserviced needs are met by non-official actors and their role in service provision is rapidly increasing. Unplanned development grows at the rate of 9 per cent per year and planned development at less than 3 per cent. As a result, the state and organised sector institutions have collapsed and become ineffective. They cannot cater alone to the increasing needs of our cities. They have been taken over by developers and contractors and by those who informally service the needs of the urban population.

Development in the urban sector continues without “planning”. But how does it take place? Who are the actors in this drama? What is their relationship with the state agencies and political parties? How do they effect the continuing degradation of our cities and the quality of life in them? When service provision is taken over by “others” then do not these “others” become a powerful political lobby?

A second generation of city dwellers has come or is coming of age. It has grown up in the period of physical and social dislocation of which I spoke earlier. It is not a generation of pioneers like its father’s generation was. How does this generation think and feel? What collective action is it involved in? And it is these collective actions and this “development without planning” that are laying the foundations for the evolution of a new institutional framework and not a constant statistical analysis of all that is wrong with the present system and how it should be set-right which our intellectuals constantly carry out.

The developments described above have a very close relationship with the issue of human rights. These developments also require the development of new laws and procedures to institutionalise, legalise and/or regulate them. These developments, ladies and gentlemen, cannot be wished away.

To deal with the adverse physical, economic and social repercussions of development, the government of Pakistan has invested billions of dollars in development related projects. Much of this money is borrowed and most of the projects have been developed by foreign consultants. Yet, these projects have not been able to improve social and physical conditions and in many cases they have been total disasters and have adversely affected the people of Pakistan and their living environment. Nor have the capacity and capability building programmes been able to build capacity and capability and nor have they produced better institutions or better planning and management. There is a need to understand why this is so.

Based on what I have discussed above, I feel that there are five important areas where the Pakistani press, intelligentsia and academia need to intervene in so that they can inform, educate and influence Pakistani society more effectively. These areas are discussed below.

  1. There is a need to understand and articulate the emerging social and economic context, its dynamics, its actors, its trends and directions. This understanding can lead to supporting or regulating what is happening in Pakistan. After all, this is how institutions and laws are developed.
  2. There is a need to understand and analyse development projects and to struggle for establishing a process of accountability and transparency in their planning and implementation process. Many of the major development projects which have been implemented were criticised by Pakistani planners and unfortunately time has proved that their criticism was valid. However, the press has not given importance to their point of view and almost all information on these projects in simply the reproduction of news items handed out to the press by the concerned planning and implementation agencies. These handouts, I can say with confidence, are incorrect to say the least. People adversely affected by these projects are the last to know about them.
  3. The press should support people’s actions. All over Pakistan people are raising issues and lobbying against the adverse effects of government planning. They are struggling for services and social infrastructure and above everything else for protection of land that is being misused and/or misappropriated by powerful interests both in urban and rural areas. The press does not support these movements. It does not campaign on behalf of the people in these issues.
  4. The articles being written in the Pakistani press on the economy are for informed people. The people of Pakistan need to know in simple terms what is meant by the IMF, the World Bank, structural readjustment etc, so that they can take a political position on these issues. Unfortunately, there is no one to explain these issues to them. Wherever one goes, in rural or in urban settlements, people ask these questions.
  5. There is a need to understand the inter-linkages between the above four points and the emerging political processes and their legal implication.

I am sure that with the passage of time, the press will get involved in the unglamorous issues that I have raised. But perhaps that will be only when the people have politicised these issues and the press is left with no other option but to investigate them. But then, one is forced to ask whether it is the press that should lead the people or it is the people that will lead the press?

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