IN an incident that has become an all-too-familiar tale, Express Tribune journalist Bilal Farooqui was picked up and detained by police on Friday. A case was registered against him under Sections 500 and 505 of the Pakistan Penal Code and Sections 11 and 20 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act by a factory worker who alleged that Mr Farooqui had posted “objectionable material” about the country’s armed forces on social media. On the same day, a sedition FIR was registered against journalist and ex-Pemra chief Absar Alam by a lawyer who accused him of using derogatory language against state institutions and personalities. Though Mr Farooqui was released and the PPC sections removed, his and Mr Absar’s case follow several incidents in which journalists have been threatened, abducted or silenced.

Contrary to the impression of a ‘free media’ the prime minister gave in a recent interview to an international media outlet, journalists in Pakistan are living under constant threat. They are watched, followed, intimidated and — if they don’t comply with the ‘requests’ of the state — they are abducted or arrested. The message is loud and clear: Big Brother is watching, and those who post criticism against certain institutions will be punished. From the head of a media group to a blogger, no one feels safe. The climate of fear that journalists live in is suffocating. It is an indictment of democratic values that support the freedom of an individual to express opinions without fear of retaliation, censorship or legal action. This environment has led to an unprecedented wave of censorship and self-censorship, as journalists and media houses can see the writing on the wall. The government must acknowledge that this is a reality instead of dismissing abductions and threats to journalists as non-issues. It must not be a party to this gross abuse of power and thuggery. International forums such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have time and again highlighted the routine harassment and intimidation of journalists in Pakistan. The world will not be fooled.

Published in Dawn, September 13th, 2020

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