TODAY is World Press Freedom Day: for Pakistan’s beleaguered journalist community, it is a reminder of how the space for them is steadily shrinking. But this grim reality should also be of concern to those who understand the critical importance of a free press in a democracy. A media in chains cannot hold the powerful to account and serve public interest as it is meant to do. Indeed, the very quality of a democracy can be gauged by the state of its press.

Read: The cost of speaking truth to power in South Asia

In its latest report, the International Federation of Journalists has ranked Pakistan the fifth most dangerous country in the world for mediapersons. During the period between 1990 and 2020, no less than 138 journalists lost their lives here for reasons connected to their work. Freedom Network Pakistan documented at least 148 attacks or violations against journalists across the country from May 3, 2020, till April 20, 2021. These include six murders, seven attempted assassinations, five kidnappings, 25 arrests or detentions, 15 assaults and 27 legal cases registered against journalists. And state authorities, responsible for protecting constitutional rights, emerged as the biggest threat to media practitioners — perceived as the perpetrators in a whopping 46pc of the documented cases.

Certainly, journalists’ safety appears to be very low on the government’s list of priorities. The human rights ministry had drafted the Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Bill over a year ago. To its credit, this was a comprehensive piece of proposed legislation that managed to take into account many of the problems confronting the media and provided workable solutions. For instance, it suggested dealing with the critical issue of impunity by setting up a seven-member committee to be headed by a former Supreme Court judge, which would have wide-ranging powers of investigation and redressal. Just as it appeared that the government had woken up to its duty towards the media, the cabinet decided to club the draft with another bill prepared by the information ministry and, for that purpose, send it to the law ministry — where it has been languishing ever since. Then SAPM on information Firdous Ashiq Awan had said that while more time was needed, “the process is in the final stage and we will try to speed it up”. The cabinet’s inexplicable decision conveniently placed an urgently needed piece of legislation on the back-burner, leaving media professionals to fend for themselves.

Meanwhile, threats from known and ‘unknown’ state elements continue to be hurled at journalists; news editors are coerced into censoring ‘undesirable’ information or giving stories a certain slant; media outlets are threatened with financial ruin if they refuse to toe the line. In the midst of this, for government functionaries to insist that the press in Pakistan is free, as they are wont to do sometimes, is no less than a bald-faced lie.

Published in Dawn, May 3rd, 2021

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