US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that the US government is aware of the curbs on media outlets and civil society in Pakistan and such restrictions on freedom of speech undermine the country's image and ability to progress.
The senior US official's statement came in response to a question from a Pakistani journalist during a press briefing on World Press Freedom Day.
"Pakistan remains among those countries in the world considered the most dangerous place for journalists. Last year, many journalists were killed, kidnapped, and tortured for exposing crime and corruption and criticising some of the government policies. Has the State Department ever taken up this issue in bilateral talks with Pakistani authorities?" the journalist asked.
"The short answer is yes. We take this up in our engagements with Pakistani counterparts," Blinken replied.
"Of course, this is also a feature of the annual Human Rights Reports that we put out, and, of course, we’re aware of significant restrictions on media outlets and civil society more broadly in Pakistan," he continued.
According to the World Press Freedom Index, Pakistan has fallen 12 points on the press freedom score in one year and now ranks even below Afghanistan, which is ruled by the Taliban.
World Press Freedom Index is released every year by Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) which is also known by its English name Reporters Without Borders. In the report issued yesterday, Pakistan also ranked below India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal but above Bangladesh, Iran, and China.
On Tuesday, the US Secretary of State noted that a vibrant and free press and informed citizenry were important for any nation and its future, including Pakistan.
These practices [of curbing free media], he cautioned, undermined freedom of expression.
"They undermine peaceful assembly. They undermine Pakistan’s image as well as its ability to progress. So it is something that comes up both in our direct engagements and in the work that we’re doing every day," he added.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said the government was "fully committed" to ensuring freedom of press and speech. He also lashed out at the previous PTI government for "placing our democracy in [a] bad light".
"Pakistan fell 12 points on [the] Press Freedom Index during [the] last year of Imran Khan's government and 18 points during his tenure. It not only earned him [the] shameful title of 'press freedom predator' but also placed our democracy in [a] bad light," he said.
PFUJ urges protection of press freedom
Meanwhile, on the eve of the World Press Freedom Day, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) expressed its resolve for ensuring the freedom of press and expression in the country which remained on a sharp decline during the previous government.
The PFUJ urged the incumbent government to focus on the protection of freedom of speech and expression as no government can succeed in its goals without the constitutional rights of the freedom of press and expression.
In a joint statement issued on Monday, PFUJ leaders had said that the Imran Khan-led government introduced draconian laws in the shape of Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) and amendment to the Prevention of Electronic Crime Act (PECA) which could have imposed “Martial law on media”.
Such laws were designed to muzzle the freedom of press and expression and gag the media, they observed, but it was a sustained campaign of PFUJ and civil society that forced the government to withdraw the amendment, they had added.
They termed the tenure of PTI government "terrible" for media.
The PFUJ said that the previous government registered" concocted and fabricated cases" against journalists, besides resorting to "abduction and attempts to kill media professionals". It also imposed censorship and issued media advice. "Those who did not succumb to the government’s pressure were punished financially which harmed media houses and media persons equally pushing the industry towards a financial bankruptcy," the PFUJ said.
"In addition to that media persons were harassed by PTI activists and even women journalists and anchors were harassed and trolled by cabinet members, which cannot be seen in any civilised society," the statement said.
The government should immediately create an environment for freedom of the press initiating a dialogue with stakeholders to devise a strategy that could protect the freedom of the press in the country, the statement had concluded.