IF evidence of the perils of being a journalist in Pakistan today were still needed, the IPI’s Press Freedom Hero Award for this year provides it — resoundingly so.

Dawn’s Cyril Almeida has endured an over two-year long campaign both overt and insidious, conducted with the express objective of silencing him, even if it put his life at risk.

Since October 2016, when he reported on civil-military differences over tackling militancy in the country, Mr Almeida has been put on the ECL twice and subjected to relentless legal harassment through frivolous petitions, with charges of treason against him (the trial is ongoing).

Alongside that, there are threats of physical violence against him and relentless character assassination on social media.

But for a Pakistani journalist to be given this prestigious award by an association of print, broadcast and digital media professionals in nearly 100 countries, also has wider implications.

Consider the nationalities of some past recipients, and the extent of the unravelling of democracy in Pakistan becomes clear. They include, among others, journalists from Egypt, Syria, Iran, Angola, Ethiopia, Turkey and Russia.

All of them have shown remarkable resilience and integrity in standing up to autocratic regimes, doggedly uncovering state corruption, reporting from theatres of war, etc. Sadly, Pakistan’s once vibrant, questioning media — albeit not without its faults — is largely in retreat, browbeaten into a supine conformity where self-preservation is predicated on self-censorship.

True journalism, the kind that holds power to account, has become a scarce commodity.

As noted by numerous press freedom reports, media persons have been abducted, beaten, arrested on flimsy pretexts, charged with terrorism and maligned as ‘foreign agents’ to destroy their credibility and mislead the public. (An entirely unwarranted, and still pending, FIR against the journalist Shahzeb Jillani accuses him of cyberterrorism.)

And that is not even taking into account the various pressure tactics exerted on media outlets which target their sources of revenue.

Only through a united front can journalism in Pakistan shake off this stranglehold and regain its real purpose.

Published in Dawn, April 26th, 2019

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