Yasmeen Ali: A Comparative Analysis of Media & Media Laws in Pakistan.

Published by Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore, 2012. 312 pages

Book Review By Dr. Shireen M Mazari

Yasmeen Ali’s book is the first attempt to put together the different types of media laws and the state of the media in Pakistan, especially in the wake of the growth of the independent print and electronic media. The book is systematically organised – reflecting the scholarly approach of the author – beginning with the theoretical concept of freedom of expression to the case study of Pakistan in terms of how this notion is reflected in the Constitution and the myriad of laws relating to the subject.

On the notion of freedom of expression, various viewpoints are cited, as well as existing case laws from other countries, to show the debate that still surrounds the issues of freedom of expression versus limits to that freedom. The author has also made a valuable distinction between the overall notion of freedom of expression and the idea of freedom of speech which the author places as being one part of the larger freedom of expression notion. The debate on this larger notion is extremely important given the controversies over blasphemous cartoons, the holocaust and other sensitive issues impacting whole communities in multiethnic, multi-religious states. Yasmeen also discusses laws in some European countries that have sought to curb the right of Muslim women to wear the veil, and how that could actually imply a denial of the right of expression to these women. Here, since the author was discussing UN Conventions as well as other laws, I felt that a little more discussion on the European laws relating to freedom of expression may have been useful for readers in Pakistan and abroad since the continuing publication of blasphemous material against Islam in Europe remains a serious problem. For instance, the EU states have all ratified the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and this has become part of the member countries laws. While guaranteeing Freedom of Expression, Article 10 of this Convention states:

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1: Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises. (emphasis mine)

2: The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection or rights of others …(emphasis mine)

So freedom of expression is clearly limited in this Convention and in many other articles of the Constitution of most European states. The author’s discussion on hate versus freedom of expression would have been enriched even further by a closer look at these European laws.

Again perhaps in the comparative on freedom of expression, the case of punitive action against anyone daring to question the holocaust as against the acceptance of blasphemous cartoons would have made for an interesting discussion. However, given the main purpose of the author was the media and media laws in Pakistan, it may have been too much of a digression.

Coming to Pakistan, the author has helped clarify the state of the laws relating to the media as well as the Constitutional positions on freedom of expression plus hpw limitations to it in the discussions on Article 19 and Article 204which include the controversial notions of contempt, defamation and libel. The holistic approach of the author is also reflected in her discussion on Article 19A of the Constitution dealing with Access to Information – brought in to accommodate the UN’s Convention on Human Rights – as well as her mentioning of the debate on dual nationality, especially in terms of the US Oath of Allegiance and the demands of Article 5 of the Constitution.

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In her comparative discussions, the constitutional provision relating to freedom of expression the reference to the Indian Constitution is very interesting, especially since it is Article 19 in there also that deals with this issue! The comparative analysis is particularly useful and informative in the chapter on Cyber laws – which I found very educational since most of us do not tend to be well-versed in this aspect of media laws.

I was particularly pleased to see a chapter on Psychological Warfare and Propaganda – a subject I taught for many years at university – included in the book. It is an extremely useful and informative chapter but I hope, when a new edition of the book comes out, the author will also include the post-9/11 influx of US dollars into the Pakistani media and its fallout. More information on this issue is becoming public now.

The author has done a remarkable critical review of the electronic media in Pakistan including its coverage of sensitive operations like the Lal Masjid coverage; and has raised some crucial questions as well. In fact, one of the most positive aspects of the book is that while each chapter has a conclusion, the author not only leaves the reader to draw his/her own conclusions but also excites the reader into puzzling over questions like when does the media shift from being the provider of news, exposer of wrongdoings to becoming the political agenda-setter? Is this a proper role for the media? Many such questions were raised in my mind as I read the book, especially when I came to the concluding chapter on Social Responsibility of the Media.

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Finally, the author has also included a chapter of the Social Media – which Pakistan is now confronting in its various forms and distortions. Facebook and Twitter seem to have run amok in Pakistan and political parties are also moving into this media field. Unfortunately, we are confronting the problem of abuse and misinformation – often harmful – being disseminated unhindered, with little or no check. The question the book raises on the social media is if one can hold it accountable at all. We have seen political parties let loose their “trolls” to utter the most vile profanities on Twitter and Facebook and then simply plead that they cannot control their supporters. The author has done well to raise the issue of the Social Media as a separate topic and there is a need to focus on how to exploit the benefits of this device while curtailing its abuse.

All in all, the book has raised controversial issues and provided extensive knowledge relating to the media and media laws not only in Pakistan but also elsewhere – so that the reader has a comparative overview of where Pakistan is positioned on these issues in comparison with other countries. Because the author has a scholarly approach, controversial issues are discussed rationally. The book is essential reading not only for those connected to the media but also those in political life. It has finally plugged a major gap in information relating to the speedily developing multilayered media issue area.