Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly, states that everyone has the right to freedom of movement.
Similarly, Article 19 urges that the fundamental right of human being is to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media. As far as the constitution of Pakistan is concerned, its Article 15 declares that every citizen shall have the right to move freely throughout Pakistan. Article 19 of our constitution also deals with the freedom of expression and press, and reads that every citizen shall have the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by law.
Unfortunately, both these guaranteed civic rights were violated during the recent Faizabad dharna. On the one hand, protesters occupying the Faizabad Interchange managed to restrict the right of movement of citizens and on the other people’s right to information was suspended.
In today’s modern world, only those countries earn respect that believe in providing the due rights owed to their citizens. Internationally countries are ranked with respect to how much freedom is being provided to the public. The presence of vibrant private TV channels is considered a symbol of democracy throughout the world.
Historically, the term ‘media blackout’ emerged during the armed conflicts that occurred in the last century. During World War II, the US government had imposed censorship on newspapers and radio stations – asking them not to report about enemy bombardments. At that time, the most reliable way to keep updated about the enemy was to extract information from the media. Very soon, the media blackout was lifted in the US due to the horrific loss of citizens. The US realised that citizens needed to have access to unbiased news about the war.
The USSR was also a strong advocate of media blackouts to strengthen its grip on the public by broadcasting one-sided news on the state-owned media. Ironically, such news censorship didn’t help the USSR to remain united. In Pakistan, a media blackout was witnessed in 1971 when news reports about East Pakistan were censored. At that time, people were totally unaware of what was really happening there. The Musharraf regime had also clamped down on private TV channels after imposing emergency rule in the country.
During the Faizabad dharna, it seemed there was no proper homework done to handle the protest. Private TV channels were instead asked to go off-air for almost 28 hours. The question is: why had there not been a proper work plan prepared on how to manage the media? If the channels were breaching the electronic media’s code of conduct then why was no legal action taken against them?
Such actions end up causing panic within society. In the absence of private TV channels and social media, various baseless rumours start spreading. People end up forwarding baseless and fabricated video clips and photos on WhatsApp and other online platforms for propaganda purposes. The same happened during the Faizabad dharna. Unfortunately, nobody was in a position to confirm or deny such information.
In the digital age of information, media blackouts also have negative psychological impacts on the general public. All segments of society including the business community, civil society, and diplomats feel like they have been pushed back into the stone age. And then the foreign media also starts questioning the country’s stability and future.
We must learn from the way the Faizabad dharna was dealt with and try and avoid such situations in the future. For this, the government must call a round-table conference and invite representatives from political and religious parliamentary parties as well as media bodies to be on one page to work on the existing laws regarding regulation. Most importantly, parliamentarians must play their due role to review legislation on a priority basis. Like the right to protest, the right to information cannot be compromised in a democratic society.
The writer is a member of the National Assembly and patron-in-chief of the Pakistan Hindu Council.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political parties , Religious parties , Social media , Electronic media , Parliamentarians , Democracy , Politics , Gen Musharraf , Faizabad , Russia , USSR