Thursday, December 9, 2010

Tariq Rahman and the Role of free institutions

There are only two kinds of free institutions: the press and the nongovernmental institutions (NGOs). Why do we need them at all? We need them if we want a democratic culture to be created; if we want democratic forms of government to be strengthened; if we want rule of law with respect for individual rights. Moreover, why should we value such things? Let us look at medieval and contemporary history for the answer.

If we look at medieval Indian history we find that 'Oriental despotism' was a reality. The king killed and imprisoned people at will. Akbar, known as a great king, killed people at will and no questions asked. Jahangir, for all his vaunted 'justice', tells us in his Tuzk how he once killed innocent people who disturbed the animals he was hunting. Aurangzeb, for all his piety, once drove his elephant over Hindus who had gathered to protest against the jaziya (poll tax). Many of the kings, nobles and feudal lords abducted beautiful women at will and killed people out of anger without trial. In addition, all this has been written by Muslim historians.
If we look at contemporary history one has to turn the macabre pages of accounts of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, the Shah of Iran, Pol Pot, Pinochet and others. Every one of these notorious figures killed, imprisoned, tortured and harmed many. While medieval monarchs had never heard of free institutions, the modern ones had and tried to suppress them.
The Modern times and Freedom
The medieval kings had, however, to face one institution which insisted on its freedom -- the church. Islam, however, did not have an established church as such. However, the ulema in their individual capacity could, and did, oppose the king and were called Ulema-e-haq. But such ulema were marginalised. Most of them were employees of the state and could not oppose the king. Some of the mystics (sufis) and mendicants did constitute free institutions but they chose escapism rather than confrontation. In short, there was no pressure on despots to respect people' lives, honour and freedom. The creation of free institutions created that much needed check on power without which no human being can be safe in any society.
It was only when modernity came that two kinds of free institutions to check the power of the state became thinkable. One operated in the name of religion; the other in the name of modernity itself. The one which worked in the name of religion was led by the orthodox ulema, the revivalist Islamic leaders and operated through the pulpit the madrassa and the political party. The one which worked in the name of modernity was either leftist or liberal. It operated through the press and through drawing room talk. As the civil service absorbed most young liberals, and even mild leftists, the liberal lobby was somewhat shamefaced. After all, nobody was much convinced by people who talked about the poor over cups of coffee. However, the press always had serious people who really valued freedom and did not express liberal sentiments as a fashion.
Objections to the Press
The charges against the press are generally wrong and keep changing with every government. Zamir Niazi's excellent trilogy on the freedom of the press gives details of these changes. It boils down to every government's wish that all stories against it should not be published, whereas those against its opponents should be. Martial law governments pass direct orders regarding what must not be written. They censor the press. Governments which claim to be democratic resort to stopping advertisements and obstructing the provision of newsprint. These tactics can either force a paper to give in or give up.
But the press is the most important institution for the creation of a democratic culture. It is true that the press, like all other institutions, can misuse its powers. Individual journalists can be wrong or malicious and some editors can have a bias against the government, some institution, or individuals. All this is true, but it is also true that if all media of information are free, the bias cancels out. Not all sources can be biased. Not all journalists will be malicious. There will always be honest people and honest sources of information. Democracy survives by allowing them to thrive. This is only possible when the state adopts a policy of allowing as many independent newspapers, magazines, TV channels, radio channels and other sources of information to flourish as possible. Another step would be to withdraw state control of the electronic media. It is by allowing only independent people to manage all information that democratic norms will be strengthened.
This appears contrary to the view of the Nawaz government that if this kind of freedom is given, it will work against the state. The result of this experiment in the West, however, suggests that the freedom is sometimes used against some individuals but not against the state. The reason is that public opinion is never against the institution of state as such. It turns against individual rulers when prices of goods go up or policies are repressive or wrong. This means that a free press is not an anti-state press, it is a press which prevents rulers from indulging in excesses. This, in fact, is the essence of democracy -- limitation on the power of the rulers.
The government gains in another way. While the state controlled media is never believed, a free press is. Thus, if the government does something good, it will only be believed if the free press reports it. Thus, a free press is also needed to afford credibility to the good policies of a government.
The third and I believe the most important use of a free press and other free institutions is that they encourage people to believe in the truth and uphold it as a value. All control, all dictatorial force, all-despotic forms of government kill the truth. When people turn sycophants, they can never look-after the interests of institutions, the state or humanity. A human being without moral courage -- the rare commodity which absolute control destroys -- is a dangerous being. Such a person cannot stand for justice or fair play. In the end mendacity, pusillanimity and sycophancy destroy the rulers themselves. They are surrounded by flatterers who always lie to them because they do not have the moral courage to tell the truth. The rulers keep making blunders and eventually the peoples' anger overthrows them. Meanwhile, wrong policies are taken and institutions fail. By the time an oppressive government comes to an end, all institutions are in disarray. Worse of all, the country does not have brave people who have the integrity to speak what they think is the truth.
The press, then, is essential not only because it creates a democratic culture and keeps rulers in check but also because it enables people to value honesty and courage. Indeed, it creates courage and honesty without which no decent and just society can flourish. For the rulers the press is their ultimate hope. When they are in the opposition, they need an honest and upright press to give them the coverage they deserve. Thus, if for no other reasons but pragmatic ones, a free press is necessary for any democratic system of governance. Without a free press there is no democracy. Indeed, without a free media, academia and other free institutions (such as NGOs) there is no possibility of creating a just, pluralistic, democratic and tolerant society.

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