Media’s shrinking space

Updated November 21, 2019

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I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

ALL reports and indicators, national as well as international, show that journalism has become more hazardous a calling in Pakistan than ever before, and that the space for freedom of expression is fast shrinking.

The Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors recently joined Freedom Network for the launch of the latter’s report on the impunity enjoyed by the killers of journalists. According to the data collected by this organisation, 133 Pakistani journalists have been killed since the year 2000. The legal proceedings in all the 33 incidents of journalists’ killings that took place from 2013 to 2019 (seven during the 2018-2019 period alone) have been documented and analysed, and the finding is: 100 per cent impunity for the killers, zero per cent justice for the 33 murdered journalists.

The details are truly chilling: FIRs registered in 32 cases; police challans submitted in courts — 20 cases; trial completed — six cases; the accused convicted — one (case in appeal, not concluded); killers punished — none. At each stage of the process the journalist-victim’s disadvantage rises higher.

Freedom Network has been releasing its report on impunity for journalists’ killers year after year; the state’s failure to intervene, even to take notice, renders it liable to censure for complicity.

The state’s failure to intervene, even to take notice, renders it liable to censure for complicity.

Loss of life is not the only punishment for journalists who dare to honestly pursue their vocation. Many of them have chosen to survive by compromising their mission, and the increasing resort to self-censorship is impoverishing journalism and depriving the people of truthful and adequate accounts of their affairs.

The plan to put the entire media — print, electronic and digital — under a single authority, the ‘Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority’, is still in the pipeline. If implemented, this measure will change the declaration for publications into a licence to be renewed every year on an all-powerful official’s terms, and the principle of media representation on disciplinary bodies, recognised 50 years ago, will be abandoned. And who had heard 10 years ago of businessmen being told to blacklist certain newspapers, or of newspapers’ distribution being prohibited in certain areas?

All the fears expressed while the cybercrime law was being debated in parliament have come true, as seen in the way journalist Shahzeb Jillani’s dismissal from service was manipulated, with his subsequent trial under the cybercrime law constituting a sordid chapter in the country’s media history. The harassment of a woman human rights defender is nothing short of the law’s abuse.

Further, international reports on media freedom continue to make adverse comments on Pakistan. In its 2019 Freedom of the Net report, Freedom House has declared Pakistan ‘not free’ in terms of internet use for the ninth consecutive year.

The culture of impunity also enables the perpetrators of online violence against women journalists to escape accountability and forces the victims to curtail their work; this adversely affects the media.

According to a report released by Media Matters for Democracy earlier this month, three out of 10 women journalists were victims of serious online offences such as blackmail and incitement to violence against them. The responses from 110 women journalists from across the country showed that 95pc of them believe online violence affects their work, curtails their area of activity, and compels them to resort to self-censorship that affects journalism.

The Pakistani media’s ability to provide as much information to the people as possible about matters concerning their affairs is also affected by the state’s increasing disregard for transparent governance. This is proved by the establishment’s failure to honour its legal obligation to proactively disclose information about the performance of its various ministries, as provided in the Right of Access to Information Act, 2017. A Pakistan Commission on Access to Information has also been established.

The Institute of Research, Advocacy and Development, that started monitoring compliance with the law in this regard last year, has found in this year’s report too that the overall performance of federal ministries has been generally poor. Each of the 33 federal ministries has failed to provide over half of the minimum 39 categories of information on its website as required by the law. The ministries could score only 419 (32.56pc) out of a maximum 1,287 performance marks.

The best performing ministry (finance) received 19 points and even this was below 50pc of the expected performance. The worst performer was the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis.

The best indicators provided were: contact details of officers (available on websites of 31 of the 33 ministries); contact details of employees (27 ministries); organogram, mission statement, and charter/ function (26 ministries) and terms for granting contracts, licences or permits (26 ministries).

The worst indicators were: zero compliance by all ministries about duties/ functions; remuneration; perks and privileges of employees; criteria or guidelines for the exercise of discretionary powers; the fee for information request; audit; inquiry/ investigation reports; and prescribed information and camera footage having a bearing on crime.

Nine out of 39 categories of information demanded by the RTI law have not been put on the website by any one of the 33 federal ministries. Each federal public body is required to notify a designated official but only eight out of the 33 ministries have complied. In its first year, the Pakistan Commission on Access to Information was not provided the required resources, and its capacity to enforce compliance with the RTI law was severely curtailed.

This study confirms the trend towards a closed society and secrecy about its functions.

The government must realise that the victims of its hostility towards a free media are the people of the country. It must deal with impunity, shed its insensitivity to the media’s economic crises and the sacking of several thousand journalists, and remove the barriers to freedom of expression. Otherwise, the truth will become the first casualty in our land and the national discourse will lose its diversity and meaningfulness.

Published in Dawn, November 21st, 2019