A slippery slope

If a newspaper wanted to cover match-fixing, the last person they would ask to report the story is a Pakistani cricketer. No media organisation with a semblance of sense would expect a person to provide unbiased reporting on his greatest revenue stream. It is called conflict of interest and should govern every facet of journalism, from reporting to editing and opinion-mongering.

Conflict of interest is inherent in all media criticism. When one mustachioed, pot-bellied talk-show host lashes out at another mustachioed, pot-bellied talk-show host, the viewer can never be sure what prompted the outraged. Maybe a chat king is miffed that his compatriot did not invite him to a rocking Islamabad party. Perhaps one bloviator stole another gasbag’s girlfriend. When the media covers the media (and that includes this blog post), sufficient skepticism should be applied.

It is righteous outrage, however, that seems to have sparked a frenzy against talk-show hosts who seem to fall on the side of Salmaan Taseer’s killer among the journalism community (to the extent that a bunch of people who are jealous of each other and voice their shrill opinions 140 characters at a time can be called a community). These talk-show hosts have shocked the conscience of all right-thinking people and so the indignation can not only be understood, it can also, if properly applied, be useful by causing media owners to at least consider thinking about the tone of their programming.

Where many of the critics have gone too far is in calling for FIRs to be registered against the offending talk-show hosts and for PEMRA to take action against them for inciting violence. It is understandable that opinions were inflamed in the days following Taseer’s assassination, but curtailing speech, no matter how offensive the speech in question may be, is like killing a fly but using a bazooka rather than a swatter.

The balance between liberty and security can be tough to maintain, and incitement to violence has always been understood to lie outside the boundaries of free speech. The definition of incitement, though, should be appropriately narrow. To qualify as incitement, the speaker should clearly and forthrightly call for violence. Barring that, it needs to be shown that the speaker’s words clearly influenced the actions of the perpetrator. The talk-show hosts who doubted Salmaan Taseer’s religion and cast aspersions on his character and motives, or even glorified his assassin, may be odious creatures. But since they haven’t explicitly called for violence, they should be legally allowed to spread their odiousness.

Instead of trying to make a legal case against the electronic media – I use the phrase “electronic media” interchangeably with talk-show hosts since, in the popular imagination, reporters, news anchors and producers do not exist – critics need to stick to making a moral case. Outlawing free speech rights is a slippery slope. If permitted, it will soon be used against the very people now demanding it. Indeed, in an interview before his assassination, a talk-show host accused Taseer himself of inciting violence by inflaming Muslims who were angered by his coming to Aasia Bibi’s aid despite her legal conviction. A society that does not allow disgusting, amoral speech is one that won’t allow any freedom of speech at all.

By all means, we should encourage boycotts and petitions against talk-show hosts who have crossed a moral, if not legal, line. We should cheer when they are fired and the demand they be shunned by all. But calling for them to be locked up reveals a dangerous streak of authoritarianism in those who profess to be the last bastions of liberalism.

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