ISLAMABAD: Media freedom in Pakistan suffered significant setbacks over the past year, particularly through “state-driven intimidation” and “predatory actions by some non-state actors” which saw over 200 journalists and bloggers targeted via at least 70 legal notices.

An annual report titled ‘Erosion of Free Speech: The Silencing of Citizens, Political Parties and Media’ was published by the Freedom Network ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3. It covers the May 2023 to April 2024 period.

The report noted that there was reduced tolerance for online dissent as well as a raft of attacks and harassment of journalists and bloggers, including the murder of four journalists, which eroded the parameters of free speech and dissent in Pakistan and enhanced the risks for media freedom.

It said over 70 legal notices were served to media practitioners. “Many came consequent to a ‘joint investigation team’ of various government departments tasked with identifying persons allegedly running a smear campaign against some judges; although, the chief justice later said he was not a complainant, and that the judiciary was being used to target free expression aimed at others.”

Report says four journalists killed, online ‘dissent’ regularly targeted

It said four journalists were killed in the period under review – two each in Sindh and Punjab. A total of 104 cases of violations against journalists and other media practitioners, including murders, attacks, injuries, kidnapping, threats and legal cases, were documented by the Freedom Network.

“Acute political polarisation and governance and economic instability saw three governments in the one year between May 2023 and April 2024… Through their actions all three ruling dispensations seemed to have evolved an alarming consensus among its most powerful political and state figures to lower their threshold of tolerance to freedom of expression, particularly online dissent,” the report underlined.

A pattern of crackdowns in the past year emerged that saw dozens of journalists and bloggers slapped with legal notices, some being arrested, and others attacked and aggressively intimidated, according to the report. “Political workers also came in the dragnet. All this transpired against a backdrop of warnings of actions by high officials, including top government functionaries, followed by regular targeting of online expression.”

The report noted major failures of key state actions and targeting of other journalists and free speech practitioners by non-state actors that reversed the freedom of expression dial in Pakistan in the period under review, including a near-universal suspension across the country of mobile phone services on February 8 polls. The curtailment of access to information and freedom of expression also included frequent network shutdowns and prolonged social media platform suspensions.

The report also expressed concern at renewed government attempts to legislate in the coming weeks the ‘E-Safety Bill and Personal Data Protection Bill’.

Both were approved by the federal cabinet of Shehbaz Sharif’s previous government in July 2023. The bills aim to establish separate authorities with powers to penalise ‘posters of content’ on social media platforms.

“Adverse policy actions, such as the state’s intent to weaponise regulations of online content, particularly social media platforms, including journalistic and social expression, will not only institutionalise coercive censorship but also put other Pakistan’s rising digital economy in peril,” the report warned.

The report, however, documented “small victories” in defence of freedom of expression and media freedom. These included: The Supreme Court, acting in January 2024 on a joint petition filed by the associations of court journalists, ordered the Federal Investigations Agency to suspend notices issued to journalists. The Lahore High Court in November 2023 quashed a case against a journalist charged with hate speech and sedition and in February and April 2024, the Sindh High Court and the Islamabad High Court, respectively, ordered the suspension of social media platform ‘X’ (formerly Twitter) to be revoked.

Published in Dawn, April 29th, 2024

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