Nadeem Paracha and Self-Censorship

Aug 23rd, 2010 | By | Category: Censorship

Nadeem Paracha’s latest column for Dawn, “Free Limits”, takes a controversial position around the issue of freedom of the speech and the media. While I don’t agree with all of his points, the article does make an important observation about the complex relationship between mass media, audience, and politics. But most importantly, it gives the opportunity to discuss the importance of free speech as the best way to ensure responsible speech.

I’m a little bit uncomfortable with Nadeem’s statement that perhaps the media needs to show ‘self-censorship’. Whether censorship is dictated by a government bureaucrat, a military officer, a party official, or an editor, it is still illegitimate. No one person, party, or group should stop someone from publishing or saying something in order to promote or hide a specific agenda. Perhaps Mr Nadeem Paracha had a different meaning for “self-censorship”, but I wanted to make this point for the sake of argument.

Obviously, editors are responsible for reviewing articles to determine that there is a line between opinion/editorial content and factual reports. And editors can make decisions about when a story is ready to report. Too often, in the age of electronic media, there is a failure on both counts – editors allowing all sorts of biased and inflammatory remarks to boost advertising sales and instant reporting of rumours even before the facts are determined in order to have the “breaking” story that improves ratings.

If media reports are hyperventilating partisan talking points or outlandish conspiracy theories, the media outlet that presents them ultimately discredits itself. Yes, it may see advertising revenues or ratings increase in the short term, but in the long term it will see itself wither away. It is like a candle that burns on both ends. It shines brightly for a moment, but then it consumes itself.

Nadeem gets to this point, too, in his conclusion. Those media voices that cry foul while they themselves are guilty are not respected enough to be taken seriously. They may have a legitimate complaint, but nobody wants to listen as it becomes their “just desserts”.

Till then, I am afraid, all those hysterical spiels by populist media outfits about free speech just do not hold much credence in my eyes; though I would not condone the banning of any channel.

And this is also what sets Nadeem Paracha apart from many others: “I would not condone the banning of any channel”. To this, I think that the answer to Nadeem Paracha’s question as to “how suitable or justified are we to wave the free speech flag?” is: Quite justified. Individuals may be upset about a particular story or the way it is reported, but that does not give license to threaten a journalist, destroy newspapers, or shut down TV broadcasts. Two wrongs do not make it right.

The best – in fact the only – antidote to media bias, conspiracy theories, and propaganda is for reasonable, rational people to publicly correct this misinformation. When media make false or biased claims, they are doing so with the expectation that they will not be caught out. Once they are exposed, they will face a choice: correct their practices to conform with responsible standards, or be discredited and fade away.

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