WASHINGTON: Pakistan fell by 12 places on an index of media freedom as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that lack of freedom undermines Pakistan’s image and progress.

The 2022 freedom index, released this week by a media advocacy group called Reporters Without Borders (RSF), also showed a general decline across South Asia.

Pakistan was 145th on the 2021 index and fell to 157th on a list of 180 countries in 2022. India fell by eight places to 150th, from last year’s 142nd.

All South Asian nations performed poorly on the RSF 2022 World Press Freedom Index except Nepal. Sri Lanka is on the 127th position this year, Bangladesh 152nd and Myanmar at 140th. Nepal, however, gained 30 points in the global ranking, moving to the 76th position from last year’s 106th.

RSF, a Paris-based media watchdog, released its report on the World Press Freedom Day, which was observed on May 3.

Pakistan was 145th on the 2021 index and fell to 157th on the list of 180 countries in 2022 report

In Washington, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a special news briefing on that day, reminding the international community that “a vibrant independent press is a cornerstone for any healthy democracy”.

Responding to a question at the briefing, the chief US diplomat also expressed concern at the state of the media in Pakistan.

“We take this up in our engagements with Pakistani counterparts. This is also a feature of the annual Human Rights Reports that we put out,” he said. “And, of course, we’re aware of significant restrictions on media outlets and civil society more broadly in Pakistan.”

Secretary Blinken reiterated that “a vibrant free press, and an informed citizenry, is a key for any nation and its future, including Pakistan”. But he warned that the “practices we see” in Pakistan “undermines freedom of expression. They undermine peaceful assembly. They undermine Pakistan’s image as well as its ability to progress”.

The RSF report noted that since 1947, Pakistan has “oscillated between civil society’s quest for greater press freedom and the political and military elite’s constant reassertion of extensive control over the media”.

Media landscape

The report noted that the landscape in Pakistan had become extremely diversified since 2002 and the country now had around 100 TV channels and more than 200 radio stations, which play a fundamental role in providing news and information to a population with a relatively low literacy rate.

It also noted that Pakistan’s English-language press has “a strong tradition of independence and “serves as a showcase for the two leading media groups, Jang and Dawn”.

Political context

The report noted that despite changes in political power, “a recurring theme is apparent: political parties in opposition support press freedom but are first to restrict it when in power”.

The report also claimed that the “coverage of military and intelligence agency interference in politics has become off limits for journalists”.

Legal framework

Under the guise of protecting journalism, “Pakistani law is used to censor any criticism of the government and the armed forces”, the report added.

As a result of “these ambiguously worded laws, journalists who cross the implicit lines dictated by the authorities are exposed to heavy administrative and criminal penalties”, the RSF noted.

Economic context

The report pointed out that the privately owned media — especially local media — “are dependent on state sector ads and legal announcements for their funding, resulting in information ministries at the provincial and national levels threatening to withdraw advertising in order to influence editorial policy”.

“Media outlets that dare to cross the red lines expose themselves to all kinds of financial reprisals. The fact that journalists’ salaries are often cut when their employers are going through financial difficulties encourages self-censorship.”

Published in Dawn, May 6th, 2022

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