THE open season on journalists is acquiring a darker edge. When the government itself becomes party to smear campaigns against journalists, an important line is crossed. It means the state no longer believes in its duty to protect journalists and their right to freedom of speech.

On Thursday, when Twitter was abuzz over Stephen Sackur’s punishing interview of Ishaq Dar on Hard Talk and comparing it with ‘softer’ approaches by some Pakistani anchors, the PTI’s official Lahore account posted two execrable tweets. The first was a list of mediapersons who it said were “building narratives for the corrupt”; the second was another list, this time of “brave and bold journalists fighting the war of truth and justice”.

The tweets were deleted after they caused an uproar; a member of the PTI’s social media team issued an apology, saying it was done by a regional PTI account. While that may be so, the tweets betray the ruling party’s attitude towards independent-minded journalists. These are the mediapersons who do not flinch from asking uncomfortable questions — in short, who do what their profession demands of them, which is to hold the government’s feet to the fire. Now, if for just a while, the PTI’s antipathy was there in black and white for all to see. In such an environment, to be a journalist that the government ‘approves’ of is a dubious honour indeed.

The PTI government has from the outset adopted a shoot-the-messenger approach towards questions about its performance. Any negative coverage, however truthful and accurate, is instantly derided and/ or discredited by government functionaries. Rather than addressing the issue and seeing the news report as feedback that could help it improve matters, the journalist is put in the dock. An army of trolls then emerges on social media to unleash a campaign of hate, vilifying the journalist as ‘anti-state’, ‘anti-government’ and even ‘anti-PTI’. Women journalists in particular are bombarded with sexualised threats aimed at intimidating them into silence.

Last year, the PTI’s official account fired off several tweets denouncing as ‘anti-state’ mediapersons critical of the government. Adding insult to injury, the government doubled down by saying that the digital campaign was aimed at ‘educating’ the media, not ridiculing them. That is the problem: the PTI itself has set the tone for this vicious environment where journalists cannot do their job without risking their physical safety and mental well-being.

Published in Dawn, December 7th, 2020

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