IF on the face of it the news appears positive, the underlying implications are undoubtedly stark. In its special report launched last week, the Committee to Protect Journalists — an independent organisation that works to promote press freedom worldwide — said that over the year past, it “did not identify anyone singled out for murder in Pakistan because of journalistic work”. This may be encouraging, but the fact that this is the first time the committee has made such an assessment concerning Pakistan since 2001 amounts to an indictment of the impunity with which media personnel have for years been targeted, of the lack of the state’s willingness to prosecute the transgressors, and of the fact that at times, it has been agencies of the state itself that have been suspected of harassing (or worse) journalists.
No media worker may have been singled out and killed for his or her work in 2016, but that does not mean that there have been no violent deaths at all in the community. In August, DawnNews cameraman Mehmood Khan and AajTV cameraman Shehzad Ahmed were killed in the line of duty in a bomb blast at the Quetta Civil Hospital as they took footage of lawyers mourning the murder of the president of the Balochistan Bar Association. And it is not just tragedies such as this that continue to illustrate how media freedoms in Pakistan, and therefore the right of the citizenry to public-interest information, stand compromised. As the CPJ report notes, journalists and media organisations here have, under threat, had to resort to self-censorship in some cases, and several individuals have had to leave the profession, particularly in conflict areas, as a result of coming under pressure from either non-state or state actors. Certainly, Pakistan desperately needs to protect its hard-won media freedoms and ensure safety for media personnel. Yet beyond that there is much more work to be done. Consider the manner in which citizens’ right to information laws have proved helpful across the world in nurturing an environment where public-interest information is able to see the light of day. This country, however, has a sketchy track record; the laws are there but, regardless of their varying levels of robustness, requests made for information tend to be stonewalled by bureaucracy. Perhaps what is needed is a change in optics: information, whether through the media or otherwise, is a public right that the state apparatus cannot withhold.
Published in Dawn, January 2nd, 2017