Media freedom and hate speech

Published February 11, 2017

It is a freedom that ought to be guarded jealously and ferociously at all times. The freedom of the media in Pakistan has been hard-fought and hard-won over the decades and, arguably, the challenges the industry faces today from the state and certain elements of society are comparable to some of the worst crises of the past.

Together, the media must fight off attempts to maim, muzzle and mutilate it. Yet, a strong, credible and honest media must also address the problems within the industry, especially when those problems threaten the core mission of bringing news, information and analysis to the public.

There is today an undeniably serious problem within the media: hate speech and incitement to violence are being propagated under the guise of free speech and media freedom. The specific organisations and media personalities actively peddling hate are well known, but a partisan regulatory environment and the wild claims of the protagonists have obfuscated a clear-cut and entirely unacceptable state of affairs.

Drawing bright red lines when it comes to media freedom and freedom of speech is almost always a bad idea and a slippery slope towards censorship and suppression of independent thought. However, in certain narrow and very specific cases, the line between free speech, however uncomfortable, and hate speech that invites or instigates violence is clear and must necessarily be drawn.

Leave aside the law of the land for a moment; in Pakistan, arbitrary and suffocating laws have been legislated over the decades. But when a media platform is used to denounce certain individuals in a manner in which the person making the allegation believes that automatic punishment ought to follow, the line between free speech and hate speech has been crossed.

Incitement to violence follows quickly if the person making the allegations has clear reason to be aware that others may act on them and commit violence against the accused.

Clearly, not all media wars are the same and in most cases there is no need for industry or state intervention. In a free marketplace, media organisations should be free to criticise and, without seeking to attract physical violence, attack each other’s politics and positions taken.

But with the line into incitement and hate speech now so deliberately crossed, the management and journalists of media organisations need to come together to draw up a fresh code of conduct that can form the basis of future action by the Press Council and Pemra.

Sensible and fair guidelines with adequate checks and balances can be drawn up by scouring global practices and making acceptable adjustments for the local context.

Surely, even those playing with fire can be made to understand that long-term survival and self-interest demand that mutually acceptable red lines be respected. An industry adrift needs urgent correction; the public, journalists and media organisations all deserve better.

Published in Dawn, February 11th, 2017

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