Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari on Friday said that "an undeclared censorship" is "stifling the freedom of expression" in Pakistan, and journalists are coming increasingly under threat from "state and non-state actors".
The PPP leader made those remarks during his speech at the Karachi Press Club to mark the World Press Freedom Day.
"There is an undeclared censorship in Pakistan," he said. "The space for democratic rights has dangerously shrunk in Pakistan. The International Press Freedom Day this year is observed in Pakistan when the media and the right to freedom of expression are under siege.
"Journalists are under attack both from state and non-state actors. Of the 26 journalists murdered between 2013 and 2018, only 16 cases proceeded to court, trials were only completed in six cases and only one conviction was awarded by a lower court. But none were punished as the sole conviction was also overturned.
Bilawal stressed the importance of the freedom of expression, even terming it "the mother of all human rights".
"Journalists and media persons as human rights defenders suffer the most when the freedom of expression is stifled," he said. "After the right to life, the most important right is the right of expression and the freedom of association because all other rights cannot even be articulated without it."
He spoke of the shrinking space for dissent in the country, saying: "lately, this right has come under increasing threat. Some people hold guns, others carry religious text in order to stifle and dissent and coerce free speech. Rights in the country are shrinking generally and journalists have been killed in the line of duty with impunity.
"Until recently, the freedom of expression was stifled secretly like the ban on Geo and Dawn in some areas of the country or by manipulating advertisements to force the media to tow a certain line. These tactics were also referred to in the recent Supreme Court verdict in the Faizabad Dharna case.
"Not there is open talk of bringing all media under one uniform body. Not long ago the government announced a crackdown on social media as well. The impunity of crimes against journalists and human rights defenders is a manifestation of the state curbing free expression and dissent."
Bilawal urged the government to legislate with a view to providing "safety and security" to journalists, and condemned the use of "economic strangulation as a new tool to curb" the freedom of expression.
He said that "the PPP rejects the move to set up a super regulatory body over all media in Pakistan as well as the manner in which the Prevention of Electronic Crime Act (PECA) 2016 has been misapplied to stifle dissent, constructive criticism and alternative narratives."