Suffocating the press

Published December 18, 2021

THE World Press Freedom Index Report 2021 compiled by Reporters Sans Frontières this week paints a dark and foreboding picture of global press freedoms. Two of the four deadliest countries for journalists — India and Afghanistan — are from South Asia. The NGO also said that though the number of journalist killings has gone down somewhat, with 46 dead as compared to the previous year’s 50, the number of journalists being detained “has never been this high since RSF began publishing its annual round-up in 1995”. This points to the menacing environment in which journalists all over the world continue to operate and publish their work. According to the report, 488 journalists and media workers are in prison as of mid-December 2021, which is 20pc more than at the same time last year. The report paints a sorry picture of South Asia, where intimidation of journalists continues unabated. In India in particular, too many activists and journalists who have not toed the Modi government line have been vilified, hounded and punished. In an Afghanistan now under Taliban rule, the threats to mediapersons, particularly women, are amplified.

While the report marks a slight improvement in Pakistan, the reality is that the environment for journalists remains toxic. The proposed Pakistan Media Development Authority bodes ill for the future of press freedom. And the reality of working in the media — where critics are kept off air or hounded and media workers fear for their jobs — is ugly. The report points out that while the Pakistani media has a long tradition of being lively, it has become a key target for the “deep state”, which “exercises a significant degree of control over the civilian executive”. It also notes the influence of the establishment over the media “has increased dramatically since Imran Khan became prime minister in July 2018”. It cites instances of “brazen censorship” through the restricting of newspaper distribution, threats to pull advertising and jamming television signals. “Journalists who dared to broach subjects deemed off limits … have been subjected to harassment campaigns”, the report says, adding that several were abducted last year and warned to stop covering unwelcome stories or they would not be found alive. By all accounts, this is a deadly and suffocating environment for journalists which points to a democracy in name only. Mr Khan and his government must reflect on the legacy they will leave behind for press freedom, and stop treating journalists as the enemy.

Published in Dawn, December 18th, 2021

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