SADLY, the Pakistan Media Freedom Report 2019 by the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors contains little that is new or reassuring for journalists in the country. Indeed, it underscores the intimidating conditions in which they are compelled to work. According to the report, at least seven media persons were killed — murders that remain unsolved — and the press continued to face extreme threats to its functioning during 2019. Around 60 journalists, including 50 from Sindh alone, were booked in 35 cases under anti-terrorism and other laws. One of them, Chaudhry Nasrullah, was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for possessing banned literature, the first such conviction under the Anti-Terrorism Act. In a pattern similar to last year, the report holds “mysterious and unidentified actors” as posing the biggest threat to press freedom, followed by non-state elements and outlawed militant groups.
However, the fact is that whichever quarter the threat emanates from, the buck stops with the government. And unfortunately the media environment has deteriorated further under the current dispensation. From boots-on-the-ground journalists to others such as editors, directors news, etc, who work behind the scenes, all are affected. The media as a whole is at the receiving end of a sustained campaign that seeks to micromanage how news stories are handled, which topics/events are covered and which ones are dropped. Live interviews of opposition figures have been stopped midway, TV channels taken off air for broadcasting press conferences by out-of-favour politicians, news anchors (temporarily) ordered not to offer opinions on talk shows, not even their own — and this is only a partial list. Resistance comes at a price: media outlets have seen their revenue streams choked, circulation disrupted through strong-arm methods, threats of violence hurled by ‘participants’ at manufactured protests, etc. The result is a chill descending on what should be a vibrant profession with a questioning spirit. A government that cannot tolerate an independent media or protect journalists has but a tenuous claim to democratic credentials.
Published in Dawn, January 24th, 2020