Intimidating the press

Published August 22, 2021

THE Supreme Court of Pakistan has summoned senior officials from the interior ministry, FIA and the Islamabad Police to hear their version about complaints regarding the harassment of journalists. The court issued these summons in response to a petition complaining that journalists were facing increasing cases of intimidation at the hands of security agencies. The court order also made a reference to a press release issued by the FIA stating that criminal cases had been registered against some journalists because they had reported against the judiciary. “The press release creates an impression as if criminal cases were registered at the behest of the judiciary, and in doing so it portrays the judiciary to be inimical to the guaranteed fundamental right of a free press,” the court order regretted. The Supreme Court’s taking up the petition comes at an opportune time. While the cases of intimidation of journalists are on the rise, the federal government plans to go ahead with a controversial media regulatory authority whose aim appears to be to further throttle the freedom of expression.

The last few years have seen heightened pressure on media organisations as a whole as well as on individual journalists. The financial and editorial squeeze has had an adverse impact on the industry and also diluted the quality of independent journalism. A large number of journalists have lost their jobs while others have had to endure salary cuts. There have been numerous cases of physical assaults on journalists and hardly any of the perpetrators have been caught by the law-enforcement authorities. For the discerning observer, it is not difficult to recognise a distinct pattern. There is a deliberate and well-considered effort by the authorities to bring the media to heel and curtail space for criticism. All this flies in the face of constitutional guarantees for the freedom of expression. Representative media bodies have done well to reject the proposed regulatory body and they must not back down from this principled position in the face of growing pressure from the information ministry.

The Supreme Court’s timely move in the matter of harassment and intimidation of journalists by security agencies will bring welcome relief to the media industry as a whole. The government must realise that it is harming democracy by resorting to such tactics to browbeat the media. The hearings in the court that will take place soon will allow for all these issues to come to the fore so that the highest court in the land remains cognisant of how the government’s actions may be violating the constitutional rights of the media. Prime Minister Imran Khan, who claims to support the media’s right to independence, must take note of his information minister’s misguided attempt to gag the media. The court should also take notice of these developments and ask the government to explain the rationale behind the proposed body.

Published in Dawn, August 22nd, 2021

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