ISLAMABAD: The media in Pakistan is operating under a new and challenging environment exacerbated by the spread of Covid-19, the Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) has observed.

Since the spread of the pandemic in the country, two journalists have died and at least 38 media workers have tested positive, according to its report `Media Safety and Press Freedom in 2019-2020’ .

The report, released to commemorate the World Press Freedom Day on May 3, has detailed the alarming situation surrounding Covid-19 created for the Pakistani media.

According to the report, most media organisations as well as the government have not ensured the effective implementation of safety protocols nor the timely provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) to media workers.

A key recommendation of the report called on Pakistan’s media associations, including the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA), the All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS) and Council of Pakistan Newspaper Society (CPNE), to develop detailed workable guidelines for all media workers on how to cover the coronavirus safely and to monitor their implementation by their member organisations.

Most organisations and government have not provided PPE to media workers, according to PPF report

The PPF also urged the government to provide support to the media in ensuring the safety of media workers.

The number of positive cases among media workers was alarming as around 38 cases had been confirmed in media workers, it said.

“In addition to the protection of media workers, the coronavirus has also created new challenges for the media on how to cover the pandemic, ensuring accurate information as fake news is circulated on social media platforms,” the report stressed.

The report also recommended that all levels of government recognised the need for free flow of information during this time, respect the right to freedom of expression and to release all journalists who had been arrested for their work.

The report also discussed factors surrounding press freedom and the safety of journalists in Pakistan during 2019-20.

Between January 2019 and April 2020, journalists in Pakistan worked under increasing restrictions with little accountability of those who limit freedom of expression, continued to target journalists and aim to discredit the work of the media through a range of tools from attacking journalists to placing financial constraints on media outlets as a pressure tactic.

“In at least one instance this year, a journalist was briefly abducted and harassed. In another instance, the house of a journalist was raided and a publishing house printing one of renowned writer Muhammad Hanif’s books in Urdu was raided,” the PPF said.

There have also been at least five arrests of journalists. The most high-profile case of a media personnel arrested was the arrest of the Jang and Geo Media Group editor-in-chief Mir Shakilur Rehman on March 12. Mr Rehman was arrested by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB over irregularities in the purchase of his residential property 34 years earlier. However, the report said, the arrest raised concerns about press freedom and appeared to be an attempt to pressurise the largest media group in the country.

This already high-risk environment which journalists operate under has been further made difficult by the policies and rhetoric of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government, which in 2019 likened critical media coverage to treason. While Prime Minister Imran Khan dismissed curbs on press freedom in Pakistan as a “joke”, the policies and proposals of the government including media courts and social media regulations, indicate a control over the autonomy of the media.

Meanwhile, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) had on numerous instances provided “advice” to the media, controlling what the media could cover and what it deemed unacceptable.

During this time period, on numerous occasions, television channels or shows had been removed from air during interviews with opposition politicians, including former president Asif Ali Zardari and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) vice president Maryam Nawaz.

Between January 2019 and April 2020, there have been proposals to regulate social media content. This led to various social media companies threatening to leave Pakistan and creating a grim picture for the opportunity for free expression online, the report added.

An environment where journalists were the target of government and other officials’ scorn and were often threatened for their work — both verbally and physically — created a bleak picture for press freedom and the safety of journalists in Pakistan, the report said.

Published in Dawn, May 3rd, 2020