Democracy and the Press

The Press in Pakistan has its moments of glory when suddenly it becomes the darling of the person dismissing an elected government. His advisors go into overdrive to cull together any bit of damning evidence they can lift from newspapers and magazines for their 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 hoi polloi watching the usurper on the state-controlled television.

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, co-author of HDR. The Pakistan-born UNDP Deputy Director in New York says that due to the “general disillusionment of the public” and an “excellent exposure” of corruption by the Press, the man on the street hardly raised an eyebrow when General Musharraf’s coup overturned Nawaz Sharif’s elected government in 1999!

Breaking away from the UN stereotypes – bureaucratic hobbits who pusillanimously avoid addressing burning issues, preferring instead to be purveyors of abstraction and dense data, Noman’s rooting for the press in Pakistan comes as a whiff of fresh air from the stale and stodgy UN redoubt.
Still, 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 designates 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 & Radio) which is state controlled and needs liberalizing if Pakistan has to improve its international ratings.

Compiled by an independent team of experts, the UNDP has since 1990, been commissioning the HDR in a bid to explore major issues of concern. I remember, one year, the Pakistani-born, late Mahbubul Haq, a UNDP advisor, launched the Report in Islamabad that he himself had authored on the proliferating arms bazaar by the West.  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 limned 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. His keening did not give the rest of the world sleepless nights. Sound and fury there was none. 

The frills adorning the Report this year again target the West (skimming the tip of the iceberg of Western might, the UNDP thinks it’s done its job?). 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), but decisions are made by small group meetings heavily influenced by Canada, Europe, Japan and the US.”


Tentatively, baiting the bear a little more, 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, who will dismiss 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.
Shining 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 Pakistan’s street. With elections only 2 months away, Pakistan prepares itself to invite democracy back in its fold. And should General 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 (read General Musharraf) 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. Coming a long way, 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 Pakistan continues with the status quo, then chances of its ‘national security’ being safeguarded are good. However if it opts 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?

Does Mark Malloch Brown, who was also the political advisor to the Philippine President Cory Aquino, have an answer to this Catch 22 situation?

Unfestive, meanwhile is Pakistan’s performance in the Human Development Index (HDI), which forms the backbone of the UNDP Report. The HDI ranks 173 countries by a composite measure of life expectancy, education and income per person.  Pakistan ranks 138 and is 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. The greater the gender disparity in participation, the lower the GEM. As expected US and Europe have a low GEM, while India and Pakistan have the highest which is 60!     

The Report especially mentions the US mainstream media as 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 trusting of large corporations and economic globalization, and less concerned about guaranteeing access to health care to all Americans “.  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, cheerleading of CEOs, mergers and acquisitions’ while the stock market headed due South.

An online web site,(FAIR) Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting,  co-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 serve as megaphones for the rhetoric of the U.S. government, the result is responsible journalism!”

What would one call The New York Times report on the Gujarat massacre splashed all over the page on the day Secretary of State Colin Powell landed in New Delhi? It was hardly news since Arundhati Roy and many others had written the same story some months earlie. Going by the NYT strategem, sure enough, to cover Powell’s hop to Islamabad, the next day, we saw sensationalized on its pages the  Jhugiwalla gang rape. Two terribly stale stories on two consecutive days!

Would one call this “responsible journalism”? Or just strategic timing ? Was this intended to provide much needed leverage to the Secretary of State in delicate maneuverings he had to achieve in the two countries?  After all, let us not forget that NYT wields considerable clout in influencing US foreign policy and as a quid pro quo, has to smoothen the tracks of the State Department by exposing apparent vulnerabilities of countries that need to be coerced into towing the American line.

The late Katharine Graham, publisher of Washington Post was perhaps more up-front: “We live in a dirty and dangerous world. There are some things the general public does not need to know, and shouldn’t. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows,” she said in a speech to CIA recruits in 1988. Her paper did print what it knew on Watergate and sent a sitting President Nixon packing in August of 1974.

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