• 11 killed in two years, state agencies blamed for ‘allowing impunity’
• Freedom Network says 248 cases of violence against media workers reported
• Islamabad seen as most dangerous city for media workers

ISLAMABAD: Eleven journalists were killed in the country over the past two years with Pakistan being ranked 150 out of the 180 states in 2023, and ironically this happened after Pakistan became the first country in the world to make laws on the safety of media professionals.

Government authorities and state agencies have been accused of being involved in the persecution of journalists, including kidnapping, physical assaults and registration of serious legal cases against them such as sedition, treason and electronic crimes.

Two years after Islamabad led the world in legislating on the safety of journalists, the country is still failing to use the legal instrument to combat the rise in crimes against journalists, said Freedom Network’s annual report, which documented cases of violence against media professionals.

‘The Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Act’ was passed unanimously by the National Assembly when Imran Khan was the prime minister in 2021. After he was ousted though a vote of no-confidence, Shehbaz Sharif became the premier in 2022. However, both the Khan and Sharif governments failed to establish a safety commission mandated by the law leading Islamabad to become the most dangerous city for journalists, revealed the report marking the International Day to End Impunity falling on Nov 2.

Since the promulgation of safety laws for journalists, first by the Sindh government and then the federal government in late 2021, Pakistan continues to record an alarming increase in persecution of journalists.

The Sindh Assembly passed the ‘Sindh Protection of Journalists and other Media Practitioners Act 2021’ while the NA passed the ‘Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Act 2021’ in a space of few months. Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan, Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan have not adopted any such law.

According to the report titled ‘One Step Forward, Two Steps Back – Pakistan Legislates on Safety of Journalists, But Still Fails to Protect Them’, 37.5 per cent of the violations in Pakistan — 93 out of a total of 248 cases occurred between August 2021 and August 2023 — were recorded in Islamabad.

Sindh was the second worst region with 22.5pc of the violations (56 cases), the report said, adding it was ironic that most attacks against journalists happened in this period in regions that legislated for their safety.

Pakistan was ranked 157 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Border’s World Press Freedom Index in 2021 before the laws were passed. In 2023, the country improved its media ranking to 150 due to the two laws — a legal framework that reflected an acknowledgement by the country that it needed to tackle the problem of violence against journalists and combat impunity through legal guarantees.

But that is where the progress stops.

“It is very disturbing to see the good work of the two legislatures — the Sindh Assembly and the federal parliament — diluted by not making the laws fully operational to provide protection to journalists,” Iqbal Khattak, the executive director of Freedom Network, said. “Both the federal and Sindh governments are responsible for effectively dysfunctionalising their laws and therefore delaying and effectively denying justice to journalists,” he added.

Situation in Sindh

A somewhat similar situation prevailed in Sindh. The Sindh Protection of Journalists and Other Media Practitioners Act was passed in June 2021 by the provincial assembly and notified officially in August 2021, but the Commission for the Protection of Journalists and Other Media Practitioners, as proposed by the law, was notified one year late in December 2022 with respected jurist Rasheed A. Razvi appointed its first chairperson.

“Even after the commission was set up to ensure enforcement of the law, the Sindh government until August 2023 had failed to provide either an office, staff or a formal budget for its operations, thereby procedurally hampering its operations and severely restricting the commission’s ability to provide protection, relief and justice for the growing number of violations against journalists and media entities in Sindh province,” the report noted.

The commission was still able to come to the aid of several journalists in Sindh who were either kidnapped or attacked by issuing notices to the provincial authorities, including law enforcement agencies, to either recover or safeguard the journalists.

“His [Razvi’s] orders were complied with, indicating that if resourced properly, the commission can help reduce impunity of crimes against journalists and media in Sindh,” according to the report.

For Pakistan to benefit from the promise of two legislations, the report makes three recommendations: urgent formation of a safety commission under the Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Act, appropriate and adequate resourcing, and enactment of similar journalists’ safety laws by Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab after legislative assemblies are elected.

Published in Dawn, October 30th, 2023

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