TODAY is World Press Freedom Day, and in a global environment where authoritarian regimes are in the ascendant, even in ostensibly democratic countries, it is all the more important to celebrate the role of the journalist in holding power to account.
Fittingly enough, this year’s theme is ‘Media for democracy: journalism and elections in times of disinformation’.
When journalists are painted as enemies of the people, it should be cause for alarm. A free and independent media is the cornerstone of democracy, and plays a critical role in ensuring the fairness and transparency of the electoral exercise. When governments legislate to muzzle the media, when they discredit journalists and sow confusion in the public by promoting false narratives, often through third parties on social media, it signals their intention to prevent scrutiny of their policies and actions. Journalists who threaten this impunity do so at the cost of their lives.
According to IPI, an association of media professionals in nearly 100 countries, 55 journalists across the world were killed last year. Several of them were working on exposing corruption in the corridors of power.
However, the situation in Pakistan illustrates that press freedom cannot be gauged by the number of body bags alone.
Granted, compared with 15 media persons who were killed in this country during 2010 and 2011 for reasons confirmed as being related to their work, ‘only’ four since 2015 are believed to have lost their lives in the line of duty. However, more telling is that only three murders of journalists in Pakistan have been successfully prosecuted.
At the same time, there is unprecedented pressure on editors — sometimes cloaked as ‘advice’— to drop certain stories, even specific quotes publicly uttered by elected officials; give a particular spin to news reports; and avoid some topics entirely.
The modus operandi employed to force compliance would make a despot smile: vicious smear campaigns, physical violence, abductions and legal harassment on spurious charges, including treason.
Resistance by media outlets is countered by strong-arm methods to disrupt their circulation and limit their viewership.
International election observers in their report on last year’s polls noted that the media’s critical role as a platform for political debate was severely eroded by intimidatory tactics, and that the consequent self-censorship rendered election-related coverage “devoid of journalistic, non-partisan scrutiny”. The PTI government should consider the possibility that one day it too may want an independent media to tell the story like it is.