Testing boundaries

October 23, 2016


THE Cyril Almeida episode is only the latest Pakistan-specific manifestation of a historic, global change evolving between state-related information and independent media. Both sectors are testing or breaking conventional limits. Some general dimensions and some questions specific to this particular incident invite attention.

By their very nature, all states, democratic or otherwise, require secrecy in certain aspects. This is why virtually every state enforces laws on secrecy with varying time frames for declassification and disclosure. In some cases, even when disclosure becomes legally obligatory, redaction is used to black out portions of documents. Like love and diamonds, secrecy can be forever — until someone decides otherwise.

Even as legislatures, judiciaries, conventional media and new media enable unprecedented access to state-controlled information, certain categories of data, official and non-official, remain protected by the law against unauthorised disclosure. These include the minutes of all, or some part, of cabinet and special committee meetings; location of special weaponry; emergency deployment plans for the security forces; sites of certain mineral resources; medical records; personal data of government employees; information that potentially provides fodder for psychological warfare or other advantages to hostile states.

All states require secrecy in some aspects.

Neither freedom of expression nor right to information are unqualified or unrestricted. From prohibitions against hate speech and profanities to data in any of the categories cited earlier, all states and societies enforce codes and norms.

Breaches in recent years of state-controlled information by WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden were welcomed or condemned, celebrated or censured, depending on who reacted. But the fundamental dimension of the state’s interest and obligation to maintain secrecy on certain aspects remains unchanged. Even if efforts similar to WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden recur, states are unlikely to abandon control over information that should not be part of the public domain for a given period of time.

Plurality, not unanimity, marks the discourse about the report. Whereas the placement of the reporter’s name on the Exit Control List was overwhelmingly condemned, three differing viewpoints emerged about the publication. One reaction sees it as a valid exercise of the fundamental right of journalism to report a matter of vital public interest. Another sees the reporting of a closed-door meeting on a sensitive subject as wrongly portraying the armed forces to be protectors of violent extremists. A third claim says the report is wholly fabricated.

Like beauty, national interest can often lie in the eye of the beholder. Given the rightful unwillingness of the writer, and of Dawn to disclose the identity of the single or multiple sources, and given the variations in official statements, some aspects remain unclear. Inevitably, some questions arise.

For instance: was the information provided only verbally? Or was it also documented? If the latter, were minutes made of the critical meeting? Were minutes authenticated and approved by the person presiding over the meeting ie the prime minister? Or, as occurs in certain cases, and is likely to have occurred in a meeting whose content and decisions were as substantive as this, was the draft circulated to all principal participants for their attention and respective comments before the final version of the minutes was endorsed and signed? Only in situations where unavoidably instant actions are required, and implementation of decisions can take place on the verbal instructions of the presiding officer/ prime minister, in most other cases, action commences only after written minutes are reviewed, amended if required, and then approved.

As an important party directly relevant to the decisions reportedly taken at the meeting — so important for the prime minister that the latter places him in higher protocol than federal ministers and secretaries — the army chief would surely be entitled to endorse the minutes, especially because the onus for implementation was reportedly with a serving army officer ie DG, ISI. One highly respected former editor surmised during a talk show that the Dawn report could only be published after written minutes were seen by the editor. The last sentence of the original story clearly said no military source was willing to comment. Which meant all sources were civilian.

Should this silence not have rung a cautionary bell before the decision to publish? If the sources are totally accurate, and there are written minutes that substantiate the words spoken and decisions taken, why is the military making such a fuss? Is the fuss due only to the exposure, not due to the facts? We may never receive all the answers.

As journalism strives to serve the public interest in a period of global and national ferment when conventional boundaries of society and state, media responsibilities and citizens’ rights, secrecy and transparency, are in tumult, several similar challenging situations are likely to occur in the times to come.

The writer is a former senator and federal information minister.


Published in Dawn, October 23rd, 2016