Democracy and The Press

English Essay on "Democracy and The Press"

Ever noticed how the Press in Pakistan suddenly becomes the darling of the person dismissing an elected government? His advisers go into overdrive to cull together any bit of damning evidence they can lift from newspapers and magazines for the boss to lay his claim for seizing power. Added to this is a serious-face, properly perturbed, deeply sincere and unarguably convincing for the benefit of the ordinary people. Addresses by the usurpers (starting with Ayub Khan and still counting) to the nation via the state-controlled PTV - replete with media references - have certainly given the press its moments of glory.

More recently, the 2002 Human Development Report (HDR) launched by the UNDP has given a ringing endorsement to the role of the Pakistani press in reporting misdemeanors of its elected leaders. “The press in Pakistan has done a wonderful job in exposing corruption,” says Omar Noman, coauthor of the HDR. The Pakistan-born UNDP deputy director says that because of the “general disillusionment of the public” and an “excellent exposure” of corruption by the press, the man in the street hardly raised an eyebrow when Musharraf’s coup overturned Nawaz Sharif’s elected government in 1999.

Yet, when trawling through the ‘Freedom of the Press’ column in the HDR, Pakistan still scores poorly: it is ranked 57 by the Freedom House survey that designated countries with a score between 0-30 as having a free press; 31-60 as having a press that is partly free and 60-100 as not being free. While the Pakistani print media is free and vibrant, what it has to lug as extra baggage is the electronic media (TV & kadio) which is state-controlled and needs liberalizing if Pakistan has to improve its ratings.

Compiled by an independent team of experts, the UNDP his, since 1990, been. commissioning the HDR in a bid to explore major issues of concern. I remember, one year, the late Methbubul Haq, a UNDP adviser, launched the report in Islamabad that he himself had authored on, the proliferating arms bazaar. Pakistan and India along with the Saudis figured as the top buyers while the US and UK ranked as the top arms sellers. No surprises there. Dr Haq rang the alarm bells and presented a scary scenario in which the money grabbing West was seen exploiting the security jitters of the starving subcontinent and feeding on their frenzy encouraging an arms race. The rest of the world slept easy. Sound and fury there was none.

The frills adorning the report this year again target the West. (Maybe it’s become a UNDP practice). In a hand-wringing brief write-up, the report notes: “Nearly half of the voting power in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) rests in the hands of seven countries. Although all countries have a seat and vote in WTO (World Trade Organization), decisions are made by small group meetings heavily influenced by Cana4, Europe, Japai and the US.”

Sticking out its neck an inch further, the report addresses the imbalances between the developed countries and the developing countries and orders: “Eliminate the UN Security Council veto and reform the selection process of the heads of IMF and the World Bank (currently controlled by Europe and the US).” The above tweaks, like Dr Haq’s lamentations, will predictably generate nothing more than the pouring of scorn by the peripatetic West, which will lismiss it as a political minutiae or a mere blip on their radar screen while continuing to romp in search of more pelf and power aimed at directing the destinies of the developing countries.

Focusing attention on democracy, the main theme of the 2002 Human Development Report is Deepening Democracy in a Fragmented World. Why now? Because, argue the authors: “The big lesson of this period is never to ignore the critical role of politics in allowing people to shape their own lives. Political development is the forgotten dimension of human development”.

Undoubtedly, this theme is right up one’s street. (Wonder if the UNI)P had Pakistan in mind when it picked democracy as its theme). With elections only two months away, Pakistan prepares itself to invite democracy back in its fold. And should President Musharraf raise the spectre of an attack on national security or domestic mayhem to delay elections, the report has a ready answer for him: Around the developing world - from Malaysia to Pakistan, Colombia to Kazakhstan more populist or authoritarian leaders have argued that there is a trade-off between national stability and personal freedom. The claim that very poor countries need to concentrate on building peace and economic prosperity first - and human rights and democracy later - Human Development 2002 provides strong evidence to the contrary.”

Journalist-turned UN powerhouse, Mark Malloch Brown, who once rubbed shoulders with hacks like us when he was a reporter for the Economist on a family planning study tour of China in 1985, is today the supremo of UNDP. He cautions countries like Pakistan that “terrorism feeds on failed states and poor governance as much as failures of national security: we cannot successfully address one without the other.” Well said. But if we continue with the status-quo in Pakistan, then chances of our 'national security' being safeguarded are good. However, if we opt for a democratic polity, what then is the guarantee that corruption and poor governance will not revisit as they have been doing without a break in the past?

Infective, meanwhile, is our performance in the Human Development Index (HDI), which forms the backbone of the UNDP report. The HDI rinks 173 countries by a composite measure of life expectancy, education arid income per person. We rank 138 and are unceremoniously placed in the 'low development' column as opposed to India that has barely made it to the medium development column and ranks 124.

After Pakistan comes Sudan and other African countries in the sub-Sahara. The last on the list of 173 is Sierra Leone. And where is the world’s sole superpower? Number six. Norway comes out on top of the list, with Sweden and Canada closely behind.

Another downer for Pakistan is the ‘Gender Empowerment Measure’ (GEM) which measures the participation of women in political decision-making.(9essay.com) The greater the gender disparity in participation, the lower the GEM. As expected, the US and Europe have a low GEM, while India and Pakistan have the highest which is 60.

The report especially mentions the US media being controlled by just six major corporations. The pro-corporate tilt in the coverage and ownership is so blatant that many wonder about the role of leading editors and reporters at influential news organizations who “appear more Lrust.ing of large corporations and economic globalisation, and less concerned about guaranteeing access to health care to all Americans” (a major cause of general concern in the US today). Watching the Wall Street meltdown only points to the glaring bias in the news.

Both print and broadcast media have betrayed an ‘uncritical, if not reflexive, cheer leading of CEOs, mergers and acquisition's while the stock market headed due South. An online web site, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, edited by Normon Solomon puts it well: “When the mass media in some foreign countries serve as megaphones for the rhetoric of their government, the result is ludicrous propaganda. When the mass media in our country selves as megaphones for the rhetoric of the US government, the result is responsible journalism.”

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