Press freedom

Published May 3, 2020

TODAY, on World Press Freedom Day, an ugly reality confronts us: never before has Pakistan’s media been in such deep peril.

Recently, the Freedom Network — a local media and development sector watchdog — released the State of Press Freedom in Pakistan 2020 report. According to its findings, there were at least 91 instances of attacks against the media and its practitioners during the last 12 months.

The threat has evolved from actual physical harm, particularly common during the war against terrorism in the country, towards a more insidious form of persecution where plausible deniability enables the perpetrators to oppress the media without any consequences for themselves.

Thereby is the fiction of a ‘free and independent media’ sustained. Consider that no less than 25pc of the violations documented in the Freedom Network report comprise written or verbal threats of dire consequences, with offline and online harassment making up 14pc.

The third category included 11 cases of murder or attempted murder (12pc). The perpetrators most often were state authorities (42pc) while 16pc of the incidents were attributed to political parties.

As always, the objective of these attacks is to browbeat the media into becoming an extension of the state, rather than functioning as an independent entity holding the latter accountable. Certainly, there are bad eggs in the media fraternity, just as there are in any segment of society, but the vast majority desires to simply do its job honestly and without unlawful interference.

However, a creeping authoritarianism in governance overall has been accompanied by increasingly brazen tactics targeting journalists, including fabricated or untenable court cases filed against them. In December, an anti-terrorism court sentenced veteran journalist Nasrullah Chaudhry to five years in jail for alleged possession of banned literature. Last month, the Sindh High Court acquitted him of the charge, a ludicrous one given that media persons can have in their possession all manner of documents for purely professional reasons. In March, NAB arrested the owner of the Jang media group, Mir Shakilur Rahman, in a land case that dates back 34 years.

There are some in the PTI government, however, who recognise that a free and independent media strengthens democracy, and that such independence is contingent upon ensuring the safety of its practitioners. The Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Bill drafted by the human rights ministry is a promising piece of proposed legislation. Among its several commendable features, it gives wide-ranging powers to a seven-member commission of inquiry — led by a former Supreme Court judge — to investigate and prosecute within 14 days all forms of harassment, coercion and violence against media professionals.

However, with the bill to be clubbed with an earlier one drafted by the information ministry, the end result could be a far weaker piece of legislation. There must be unambiguous support for a truly free and independent media, not further equivocation.

Published in Dawn, May 3rd, 2020

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