Tuesday, May 8, 2012


By Rabia Ahmed
Pakistan Today 7th May 2012          http://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/?p=183034

Poised for flight?

Information, often used as a tool for control, is either freely available or else has curbs placed upon its availability.

Freedom of information is well explained in the American Library Bill of Rights which says that libraries, as the centre of ideas and information must cater to the information needs of everyone in the community, that no information must be excluded on the basis of the origin or views of those generating it. Every attempt is to be made to include different points of view, current and historical, none of which must be excluded for reasons such as doctrinal difference.

The opposite camp believes in curbs on the free availability of information.

On a league table ranking nations on the basis of freedom of press, the UK and the USA find themselves at 28 and 47 respectively this year. Pakistan ranks at 151.

Upon cursory examination, people in the West although more passionate in defence of freedom of information, and often with a higher rate of basic education appear to be less well-informed about world affairs than their poorer more illiterate counterparts in the Third World. I am not speaking of the Sarah Palins of either world who have a life of their own, but of the common man on the street.

It is usual, in Pakistan, to see a group of men squatting around their one literate member who reads from a newspaper. This suggests a relationship between the freedom and/or ability to procure information and the will to seek it out at the street level. The inference is that where information is easily available people lose the urgency to obtain it, as compared to when it is harder to access when there is a greater urge for it, although there are other related reasons.

It is important to remember that there is a lack of information, and then there is misinformation. The first is more common in the illiterate Third World and/or in countries where the state controls the media. The second…misinformation, of the rabid right wing variety, is freely available everywhere.

‘There is a propaganda campaign to make the public believe in the presence of an identified entity representing the ‘devil’ only in order to drive the TV watcher to accept a unified international leadership for a war against terrorism’. Former British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook.

Correspondingly, for many countries around the world and certainly Pakistan, all things evil originate in the West and all current social ills are laid at its door.

There are analogies for the suppression of information in incidences of suppression and control of other kinds. One of the oldest, an attempt at suppressing rebellion by the murder of all newborn Jewish males resulted in a well known uprising. Today, the separation walls built by Israel along its borders restricting the freedom of movement of its citizens and neighbours have not succeeded in containing violence. And yet Israel is building another wall along its border with Lebanon.

The banning of books…Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago, Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, Taslima Nasreen’s Lajja all failed to restrict readership. The first was translated into almost twenty languages even before it was published and won its author a Nobel Prize for literature. The Satanic Verses became a prime favourite overnight and was smuggled in every suitcase into countries where it was banned, while Lajja sold 50,000 copies within the first six months of its existence. The most recent, a controlled re-release of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kamp’ is set to be as ineffective seeing that the book is already available everywhere including online. The electronic age has of course opened another Pandora’s Box.

The presence of these restrictions and misinformation is a commentary on the short sightedness of the instigators. Governments that fail to deliver, schools that fail to educate, ideologies twisted and out of synch with the people they claim to represent, flawed projects and plans, (or their lack thereof)…and backwardness of implementation…these are the sources from which these restrictions and misinformation originate.

Anyone interested in controlling an electorate should think in terms of making information freely available, and to enable persons to access and disseminate it in safety. Chances are, the common man, being no academic, once able to access information with ease will no longer fall over himself to do so. So long, of course, that he is content where he is and is not eternally poised for flight, when of course he will be looking for information of the world around him. This is one of the other reasons for the urge for information mentioned before.

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