PRESS freedom cannot be gauged by body bags alone. If it was, Pakistan would rank among the comparatively safer countries in the world for journalists today. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a total of 15 media workers were killed in this country during 2010 and 2011 for reasons confirmed as being related to their work; more recently, from 2015 onwards, ‘only’ four have lost their lives on account of their profession. But as most journalists in Pakistan will vouch, a reduction in deadly violence of the kind that has killed at least 57 media persons in this country since 2000, does not mean an absence of violence. The CPJ’s latest report explores the evolving media landscape in Pakistan where practitioners of this essential pillar of democracy are being silenced through more insidious ways as well as through direct acts of intimidation. Indeed, it can be argued that the number of fatalities has dropped in part because these tactics are working.
To put it another way, self-censorship has become the means to self-preservation. The report cites several examples to illustrate the oppressive environment in which journalists are working, and the impunity enjoyed by those determined to crush dissent and impose a one-dimensional narrative in the public domain. Recalcitrant journalists are picked up, beaten, abducted, arrested on flimsy pretexts, charged with terrorism, etc. Some are maligned as anti-state, an allegation calculated to provoke violence against them, or at the very least destroy their credibility. Editors are ‘advised’ to refrain from covering certain issues, or to do so with a particular slant. Resistance is met with strong-arm measures to disrupt circulation and limit viewership. No one, at least in public, dares name the perpetrators; and no one is held accountable. It does not help that the red lines are growing increasingly blurred as ‘national interest’ becomes ever more loosely defined, subject to the needs of the moment. The PTI, now that it is in government, must honour its pre-election pledge to uphold constitutional rights, including the right to freedom of the press. Lifting censorship from state-run media was commendable, but it should also address the censorship that is throttling private media. As suggested in the CPJ report, journalist safety legislation must be urgently enacted and the perpetrators of violence brought to account. The new government can do much to assert its democratic credentials by ensuring that the open season on journalists comes to an end.
Published in Dawn, September 14th, 2018