Endangered freedom

10 Sep 2019


“WHEN journalists lose their rights, we all do”. Thus states a landmark report — the outcome of an extensive process involving input from multiple stakeholders — by the British House of Commons’ influential Foreign Affairs Committee on the state of global media freedom. There is perhaps no better way to encapsulate the critical importance of a free media as a watchdog for the public interest. However, as the report’s title notes, this is “an endangered liberty”. The nature of the threat it describes is multifold, and evolving in light of changing global circumstances. There is of course physical violence, by the state and other actors emboldened by their contempt for press freedom. Nearly 1,000 journalists have been killed between 2008 and 2018 due to their work: the rate of impunity is 90pc. Hundreds have been thrown behind bars on false pretexts. Moreover, the online space has created its own challenges to press freedom. Firstly, it allows the persecution of journalists across borders, even if they have escaped their countries of origin, a form of harassment particularly vicious in the case of women journalists. Secondly, digital technologies offering the advantage of advertising to target audiences have dealt a blow to traditional revenue streams. These financial constraints are further exacerbated when repressive regimes withhold government advertising to force compliance; some journalists, for the sake of survival, allow themselves to be co-opted by the nexus between government and big business. The message by the report’s authors is unequivocal: the UK must be proactive in defending media freedom, regardless of its political interests, and support the creation of an international mechanism to investigate and punish “the abuse of journalists when their governments cannot or will not do so”.

Unfortunately, there is good reason for Pakistan to be mentioned in the report as one of the countries where press freedom is in growing peril. Not too long ago, the body count of journalists killed in the line of duty was irrefutable evidence of the risks that media persons face. In recent years, however, more covert and sinister means are being employed to coerce them into submission; these tactics often leave no trace, and hence give the perpetrators deniable plausibility. Those in power can thus falsely assert — feigning outrage at any suggestion to the contrary — that the media is absolutely free, even as newsrooms in the country and reporters on the ground endure relentless pressure to work to a particular agenda.

Published in Dawn, September 10th, 2019