AN adversarial relationship between a free media and the state and public officials it seeks to cover is necessary and desirable in a democratic polity. In Pakistan, which has had long spells of undemocratic rule, such a relationship has often veered towards outright threats and violence against the media.

Today, as the country prepares to hold an unprecedented third consecutive on-schedule general election, there is a disturbing reality that confronts Dawn and its staff. Since late 2016, though with renewed and greater intensity since May 2018, the paper has been under attack in a wide-ranging and seemingly coordinated manner that includes its distribution being stopped in several areas.

While it has faced many strong challenges in the past, and will continue to do so with fortitude today, a campaign of disinformation, libel and slander, hate and virtual incitement to violence against Dawn and its staff has necessitated placing certain matters on the record.

One of the casualties of civil-military discord and strife in this country has been a free media that has embraced constitutional civilian supremacy. The publication of an article in this newspaper on Oct 6, 2016, ‘Act against militants or face international isolation, civilians tell military’, opened a new chapter of threats and intimidation against Dawn.

Following an unjustified state-led backlash, the newspaper pledged to cooperate with the authorities as required by the law, but defended the journalistic ethic of protecting one’s sources. Dawn’s editor and the reporter appeared separately before a government-constituted committee, comprising members of the civil and military intelligence, and were subjected to invasive, at times unacceptable, questioning for, cumulatively, many hours.

The effects of that insidious campaign against Dawn were continuing when the publication of a fully on-the-record interview with former prime minister Nawaz Sharif last month brought a round of new, intensified attacks against the newspaper. The seemingly retaliatory measures taken against Dawn in recent weeks have been deeply alarming and should concern all free-thinking and democratic citizens of the country.

It appears that elements within or sections of the state do not believe they have a duty to uphold the Constitution and the freedoms it guarantees. Article 19 of the Constitution is explicit: “Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press.”

The “reasonable restrictions” that Article 19 permits are well understood by a free and responsible media and have been consistently interpreted by the superior judiciary.

Dawn, like all free, independent media organisations, has never argued that it does not make journalistic mistakes and errors in editorial judgement. It considers itself accountable to its readers and fully submits itself to the law and Constitution. It welcomes dialogue with all state institutions. But it cannot be expected to abandon its commitment to practising free and fair journalism. Nor can Dawn accept its staff being exposed to threats of physical harm.

The highest authorities must take note and intervene appropriately.

Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2018

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