LAHORE: The head of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) for Asia, Steven Butler, says the potential for the press to play a full role must be realised for a democratic Pakistan.

Referring to his report on Pakistan, called ‘Acts of Intimidation’, he says the findings, based on extensive interviews with journalists and Pakistani press freedom advocates, pointed to a high degree of self-censorship.

“We relied on what our interviewees told us and drew logical conclusions based on the evidence. We were very concerned that press freedom in Pakistan doesn’t seem to be moving in the right direction. This is unfortunate,” says Butler during his talk to Dawn about the increasing problems faced by Pakistani journalists and the role of the CPJ.

The type of self-censorship witnessed in Pakistan can also be found in Bangladesh and, to some extent, in India, he says while comparing the situation with other Asian countries, adding that North Korea has virtually no press freedom at all while China has restricted press environment, followed closely by Vietnam.

Butler has been a journalist with Financial Times and the Christian Science Monitor in South Korea in the mid-1980s. Later, he worked for the Financial Times, reporting in Southeast Asia, London and Tokyo and China, joined the US News & World Report and remained at Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau during the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Before joining the CPJ in 2016, he was executive director of the Institute of Current World Affairs where he worked with institute fellows throughout the world, including in South and East Asia. He holds a PhD in political science from the Columbia University.

When asked whether he observes any changes in Pakistani press during the last 20 years, Butler termed it a complicated question.

“Awareness of the issue of the journalists’ safety has become much more widespread. Though physical attacks on journalists have declined in the recent years, they have certainly not disappeared. Fear of attack remains a worrying factor and continues to lead to caution or self-censorship among the journalists.

Butler says Pakistan appears on the CPJ’s impunity index because of the many cases in which murdered journalists have not received any justice.

“We have continued to press for the prosecution of these cases,” he says. “We met with the earlier Nawaz Sharif government and received assurances but these were not carried out. Now I met with Federal Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, who promised to look into the unsolved cases and promote prosecutions at both the federal and provincial levels. We hope the current government will pursue these cases vigorously.”

Butler explains that the CPJ documents attacks on the press and press freedom violations.

“We often aim at embarrassing those responsible and we have reason to believe this is often effective,” he says. “An example of this is helping to free a journalist from prison.”

The CPJ also advocates on behalf of journalists in a variety of ways, often directly with the governments. Lastly, they also provide direct assistance to journalists in trouble.

“We continue to do this in Pakistan, although we don’t usually publicise individual cases because this would not be helpful to the journalists,” he says.

Butler admits that sometimes it gets difficult or impossible for the CPJ to report fully on a range of sensitive topics.

But while the CPJ gives figures of 60 journalists killed in Pakistan since 1992, local journalists quote the figure as around 100 and these are just the numbers. When asked about the discrepancy in the figures, Butler makes it clear the CPJ has a methodology in analysing the crime.

“When a journalist is killed, we first ask whether the death is directly related to his activities of journalism,” he says. “We are very careful to include only those cases where journalism is an issue. For example, a journalist who dies in a car accident, even while on the job, would not appear in our statistics.”

Published in Dawn, October 31st, 2018