By Frank F. Islam
Democracy and the Role of the Free Press
Pakistani American Press Association
Thank you for that kind introduction. I appreciate your kind words.
Thank you for your warm welcome and your hospitality,
I want to express my deep gratitude to Khurram Shahzad for inviting me to speak on this occasion. I would like to take this opportunity to recognize Ambassador Chaudhary and Secretary Qarni for their leaderships. Let us give them a big round of applause
It is my pleasure to speak with you members of the Pakistani American Press Association tonight. I am honored to be here because although I am not in nor of the press – I am for the press. And, I have been so since coming to the United States from India to go to school to study computer science at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
There were many things that amazed me in my early days in this country. But, one of the things that truly stuck out for me was the freedom of the press. The journalists and reporter’s ability to listen, to watch, to observe, to investigate and to write about anything was a wonderment to me. I saw their ability to speak truth to power as a defining hallmark of this great democracy.
At the time, I didn’t know why that capacity existed. Later in my life, as I have studied and learned more, I have come to understand that the source of this freedom comes from the American constitution, the bill of rights, and the wisdom of our founding fathers.
Thomas Jefferson was one of those founding fathers and the third president of the United States. In 1787, the year the Constitution was adopted in Philadelphia, Jefferson wrote,
“The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should say I would not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Think about that (pause) – Jefferson elevated the need for a free press above the need for government. His opinion was not atypical after the Constitution was drafted.
Many citizens feared that the Constitution gave too much power to a central government and might lead to tyrannical rule. So, they demanded the addition of a bill of rights in order to get the Constitution ratified by the states.
James Madison, another founding father, drafted the Bill of Rights which contains ten amendments. The first amendment of that Bill of Rights reads as follows:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
What makes this statement unique as it relates to “freedom of the press” is that it is an unqualified right: Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech or of the press. This is why the press and the media in the United States has such a powerful platform upon which to stand.
Let me contrast that to what the Constitution of Pakistan says about freedom of speech and the press. Article 19 of the Pakistan Constitution states:
Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defense of Pakistan or any part thereof friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relations to contempt of court, [commission of] or incitement to an offence.
Wow, that is a mouthful. More importantly it is a very restricted right. It’s almost like saying you have this right but with your mouth taped shut and your hands cuffed behind your back.
That is why Freedom House, the organization that looks at freedom of the press around the world, rates the Press Freedom Status in Pakistan as Not Free. In the Executive Summary for its 2017 report for the year of 2016, Freedom House notes the following reasons for its assessment:
Restrictive laws including ones penalizing defamation and blasphemy; threats directed at journalists from a variety of actors, including the military and intelligence agencies and militant groups; and the threat of violence contribute to a hostile operating environment for Pakistan’s journalists.
As journalists, members of the press, who have come to the United States, you are much more familiar with that hostile operating environment than I am. And, I am sure it extends across the oceans and impacts your work here as well.
The question becomes what do you do about it – especially being here in the United States in this era of “fake news” when the President, who is certainly the most powerful purveyor of fake news in this country labels the real news inauthentic and those professional practitioners in the press as liars.
What should you do? I say you must stand up and speak truth to power – just as the courageous and honest members of the U.S. press are doing. There has never been a more important time for the need for truthful news than now at this crisis point in the 21st century.
Those of you here in this room must be the message barriers and the critical commentators. Let me highlight why making this commitment this is more essential today than it has been in a long time.
President Trump uses twitter to send out the majority of his fake news. A study recently released by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that false stories travel six times faster than the truth and reaches far more people. True stories almost never got retweeted to 1,000 people while the top 1 percent of false ones got to as many as 100,00 people.
This is a staggering difference. It puts the spotlight on the need for more truth. It demands that all those in the truthful news business write more truth. By doing so, you will not eliminate that gap but you can flood the twitter-waves with honesty to offset the torrent of what I call twisted twitters that are stifling the free press and democracy.
As part of speaking with you tonight, I was asked to share some thoughts on what Pakistani American Press Association could do to provide a platform for Pakistani Americans to speak up and how this association could help journalists in their profession grow.
I do so with a little hesitancy as I am not a media expert. With that disclaimer, though I do have a few general ideas for your consideration:
- Set up letter to or voice of column dedicated to an important topic a week on which Pakistani Americans can provide their opinions, observations and recommendations
- Build alliances and networks among yourselves and do joint analysis and reporting on issues that matter
- Don’t be isolationists. Find ways to collaborate and participate with journalists from the United States and other countries stationed here in the United States, develop stories that matter here, in Pakistan and abroad to stories that will be of interest here in the states
- Establish mentoring programs for those who come here from Pakistan and do on-line educational and training programs for those journalists back home in Pakistan who are seeking professional development assistance
At the outset of my remarks, I commented that although I am not in nor of the press – I am for the press. I want to assure you those are not just idle words. I am for the free press in a big way. The free press matters in a free society.
Last year and again this year, my wife Debbie and I have sponsored fellowships through the Alfred Friendly Press Partners affiliated with the University of Missouri School of Journalism to bring deserving journalists from India to the United States for classroom education and to work in an American newsroom. Finally, I have pledged $5,000 to this association to support your initiatives.
You might ask why I place such a strong emphasis on the free press. It is because I understand that without a free press there can be no real democracy. And, if there is no democracy, the free world as we know it will cease to exist.
From that perspective, let me close with a quote that is etched in the entry to the Newseum here in Washington, D.C. That quote reads as follows:
“The free press is a cornerstone of Democracy. People have the need to know. Journalists have the right to tell. Finding the facts can be difficult. Reporting the story can be dangerous. Freedom includes the right to be outrageous. Responsibility includes the right to be fair. News is history in the making. Journalists provide the first draft of history. A Free Press, at its very best, reveals the Truth.”
It is my privilege tonight to be with you Pakistani truth tellers. I came here to praise the free press, not to bury it. There are others in this town who want to do the opposite.
Time will tell how this story will end. The fate of the American democracy and of democracies around the world hinge in the balance.
Please do not stop asking the hard questions and writing the tough stories. We need you more than ever.
In closing, you journalists here today, through your words, you can call us to action. Through your words, you can document our success and failures. Through your words, you can keep us keeping on.
Thank you for spending this time with me. God bless each and all of you as you strive to do all that you can to strengthen our democratic ties.