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With one voice

August 18, 2018

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ON the eve of Pakistan’s 71st Independence Day, the International Press Institute addressed a letter to our now elected Prime Minister Imran Khan, petitioning him to “restore media freedom and create an environment where journalists and media organisations are able to function without fear”. The IPI once again outlined a series of coercive tactics deployed in recent months that have drastically caused Pakistan’s media landscape to deteriorate — from verbal and physical assaults on media workers to legally unwarranted blockades on newspapers’ distributions and TV channels’ broadcasts, not to mention effective embargos on reporting on a growing number of ‘red lines’ demarcated under the guise of protecting ‘national security’. The new prime minister would do well to listen to and address the grievances of the national press. The current stranglehold on the fourth estate, and the severe limitations this places on the people’s right to know, is inimical to the vision of Pakistan — democratic and accountable — promised by Mr Khan. A truly new dispensation, in which institutional weaknesses cannot be exploited to engineer an acquiescent press, is in everyone’s best interests.

The responsibility to reclaim the shrunken space for journalistic inquiry and scrutiny, however, does not rest with the government alone. The media must acknowledge its own culpability in allowing the situation to escalate. While several media organisations have been raising the alarm, the absence of a collective stance and cynical exploitation of the current impasse by sections of the press itself have enabled anti-democratic forces to flourish. Dawn has long maintained that the most effective bulwark against the erosion of an independent press is unity on one key, nonpartisan issue: freedom of the press. Yet this democratic tenet has not only been taken for granted but made controversial, both at home and around the world. On Thursday, hundreds of US newspapers published editorials defending press freedom in a coordinated effort to counter President Donald Trump’s persistent attacks on US media, including the recent rhetoric of labelling members of the media critical of his administration’s policies as ‘the enemy of the people’. Such terminology is deeply reflective of the ideology of those who use it, and almost always a precursor of more tangible reprisals. Here at home, with our own long history of struggle under far more hostile circumstances, it is all the more necessary for the press to speak with one collective voice in defence of our hard-won freedoms.

Published in Dawn, August 18th, 2018