Editroial: Shooting the messenger
Reports in the press state that a local journalist, Rashid Butt, was arrested in Quetta on the evening of Saturday June 1. The city’s Senior Superintendent of Police Mr Abid Ali told the press that Mr Butt had been arrested for writing an article in a local newspaper that held the law enforcement agencies responsible for the bad law and order situation in the province of Balochistan. The police had raided the offices of “Bakhabar” and “Lashkar” newspapers on the evening of June 1 and had taken Mr Butt, a senior sub-editor, into custody. The SSP Quetta further stated that Mr Butt had been arrested under Sections 501, 502 and 16 of the Maintenance of Public Order Act because he had tried to create panic by “publishing a baseless news story”. Predictably, protests have followed at the Quetta Press Club. The Balochistan Union of Journalists has also condemned Mr Butt’s arrest and demanded his immediate release.
On the same day in Karachi, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) and the All Pakistan Newspaper Employees Confederation (APNEC) urged the government of President Pervez Musharraf to abandon the proposed defamation law which they say will strain the government-press relationship. In a joint communication to the President, both PFUJ and APNEC have drawn attention to a recent statement from the Information Minister, the urbane and worldly-wise Mr Nisar Memon, wherein he said that the proposed press laws will facilitate “information management”. Come, come, Sir, information management or information control?
One would have expected this government to have learnt from the mistakes of its predecessors who too were under the misapprehension that somehow “information” could be sufficiently “managed” to give a rosy picture of life. In this age of instant communication, governments should not waste their time engaging in the business of information “management” if only for the simple reason that it is simply not possible to do so. This shoot-the-messenger philosophy has proved to be bankrupt time and again. Many previous governments have sought to blame the press for their comprehensive failures in governance. Will preventing these failures from being reported change the situation? No, the government needs to address its own inadequacies in matters of governance rather than seek to monitor and change what gets printed.
Therefore the theory of “information management” is a complete non-starter, unless of course, the government means “press management”. Here again, the government is tilting at windmills. The Pakistani press has come a long way by resisting successive efforts to “manage” and control it. The press will oppose the new defamation law just as it has successfully opposed earlier laws meant to curb its freedom. As expected, representatives of the press have protested against the new law, especially its “most unjust and draconian aspect” which holds that no journalist will be allowed to produce any official document, summary or other relevant papers in his defence to substantiate his story.
The proposed defamation law is not the only worrying cloud on the press-government relations horizon. There are reports that a senior reporter based in Islamabad is being systematically harassed by “unknown” persecutors who are actually well known to us. We understand that the reporter has been receiving threats since he blew the whistle on the planned draconian defamation law. The reporter certainly feels endangered and the message has got across to the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE) as well as to the All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS). It is only a matter of time before the reporter’s case is brought to the attention of international bodies that monitor human rights abuses and attacks on press freedom the world over. The government runs the risk of an embarrassing situation arising from press protests against the promulgation of the planned defamation law as also the persecution of journalists. Such a situation could eat into the remaining goodwill both at home and abroad for the government of General Pervez Musharraf. So the sooner the hounds are called off, the better.
Here the question arises: is the situation on the international front not already fraught enough for the government of General Pervez Musharraf? Does it need to be the recipient of more criticism and more cynicism from the world? Has not General Musharraf taken credit in the past for his government’s hitherto largely hands-off relationship with the press that has set him apart from his “democratic” press-bashing predecessors? The government would do well to remember the lessons of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s run-in with the press. It was Sharif’s crackdown on the press that destroyed his democratic credentials with the international community. And it was the destruction of those credentials that made General Musharraf’s coup easier to digest for the world. Shooting the messenger has never helped and it never will.
Mr Rashid Butt must be released forthwith in Quetta and the senior reporter in Islamabad should be left alone to carry out his duties.