BALANCING freedom of speech, especially the freedom of the media to report and comment on public figures and issues of public importance, against the right of individuals to be protected against libel and slander is a delicate art. In all cases, the public interest should be given precedence over unreasonable personal protection of information and reputation. This newspaper is a front-line and consistent defender of media freedom, and is aware of the potential chilling effect on the media of laws that can be misused or implemented overzealously. The public interest to have unfettered access to information provided by a resolute media should be robustly protected at all times. Nevertheless, there are clearly identifiable cases of flagrant abuse by sections of the media — of libel and slander and unacceptable harm to reputations — that should not go unexamined.
The successful legal action taken by the Jang/Geo group against the ARY group is an example of where courts and the legal process can have a sensible and balancing effect against wild and dangerous accusations masquerading as news and fair comment. Yet, litigating local disputes in foreign courts cannot be a sensible solution to the problem. Foreign litigation can be very costly to pursue and it depends on whether the media outlet in question has a presence on foreign soil or in the jurisdiction of a foreign court — something few Pakistani media houses do. Moreover, legal systems cater to local factors — where the UK has set its libel and slander bar is very different from the US, for example. What Pakistan needs is a Pakistani law — for individuals and organisations to challenge in court instances of what they believe to be libel or slander against them and for the courts to enforce a sensibly drafted law that protects free speech and media freedom while allowing for the punishment of those acting with wilful malice. The problem is not limited to the electronic media — many print publications have erred, deliberately and otherwise, over the decades — but it is on TV where the most egregious violations of basic journalistic norms and standards are now routinely found.
With the regulatory capture of Pemra by the state — both the political government and the military establishment use the regulator for narrow political and messaging purposes — individuals who believe they have been libelled or slandered in the media have no forum in which to seek redress. A new libel and slander law, if drawn up with care and implemented sparingly and in clear cases by the judiciary, could help right the imbalance that exists at present. A free and emboldened media is vital to a democratic state and society. But the media exists to inform, not to defame — where appropriate, individuals should have recourse to a reasonable law. A sensible new libel law could help nudge the media back to its public-interest roots.
Published in Dawn, December 26th, 2016