THAT Pakistan once again features on a list of countries with the largest number of journalists killed in the last 30 years is a damning indictment of a state that has failed to protect the country’s media workers who fulfil an essential role in a democratic system. According to the International Federation of Journalists, that published a White Paper on Global Journalism, Pakistan is among the five nations considered the “most dangerous countries for practice of journalism in the world”. The paper notes that Pakistan has seen the deaths of 138 journalists since 1990 — a grim statistic that bodes ill for freedom of press in the country. This report comes in the same year in which the Freedom Network recorded at least 91 cases of violence — which includes murder, assault, censorship, threats and legal suits — against journalists in Pakistan over the past year. Sadly, even though fewer journalists are being murdered in Pakistan today, more of them are being intimidated, threatened, censored and punished than ever before — a phenomenon that shows that both state and non-state actors are adopting new ways to silence media workers.

The reality under which journalists in Pakistan operate is highly disturbing and points to the rapidly shrinking space for criticism and independent thinking. Journalists are openly threatened and rebuked on social media — often by accounts linked to the government. This year alone, some journalists have been booked in sedition cases while others have been kidnapped — and released after huge public outcry. Though the number of killings have gone down, such tactics of intimidation are on the rise. Moreover, little is done to resolve cases of murder and assassination attempts on journalists, such as that of Hamid Mir who was attacked in 2014, but who still awaits justice. Unfortunately, when the prime minister is asked about censorship and the kidnappings of journalists, he denies the environment of threats or feigns ignorance. This is not acceptable. Journalists in Pakistan often work in miserable conditions to bring information and facts to members of the public. That their struggle is punished rather than lauded is a tragedy. The state would do well to realise that journalists are messengers, not adversaries. A hawkish approach to the media and a denial of the dangerous circumstances in which journalists operate betrays authoritarian ambitions and an unwillingness to respect press freedom. Such an attitude, though common in a dictatorship, has no place in a democracy.

Published in Dawn, December 15th, 2020

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