LAHORE: Over the last several months, numerous journalists in the print and broadcast media have complained of interference with freedom of expression, said eminent human rights activists Monday.
Dr. Mehdi Hassan, IA Rehman, Hussain Naqvi, Ghazi Salahudin, Ziaul Din Dawood, Afrasiyab Khattak and Marvi Sarmad were addressing a press conference here. Dr Mehdi Hassan said the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) had carried out an independent fact-finding exercise to assess the extent and nature of curbs on freedom of expression across Pakistan.
The activists said many respondents also referred specifically to the establishment, addng the HRCP would also communicate the findings with the establishment, while complying strictly with respondents’ request for anonymity.
IA Rehman said that Interviews carried out independently by HRCP with distributors in Balochistan, Punjab and Sindh corroborate allegations by Dawn that disruptions and intermittent closures following the publication of an interview with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, sales agents allege that the distribution of the newspaper has been disrupted daily in at least 20 targeted cities and towns.
The activists showed their concerns and said that hawkers report being subjected to continual harassment, threats and physical coercion while attempting to deliver copies of the newspaper to regular subscribers. At least two distributors confirm that they were asked to provide information on their subscribers.
The activists said this has been accompanied by the withdrawal or suspension of advertisements:
HRCP has documented at least three instances in which cable operators in Punjab and GB say they were compelled to take certain channels off air. In each case, they received a telephone call from persons identifying themselves officials, warning them to ‘remove’ Geo TV from the list of channels being transmitted or to move it to the very end, thereby making it less accessible. All respondents say they had no choice but to comply for fear their business would be closed down or attacked.
As far as the television channel management is concerned, the prevailing uncertainty surrounding their ability to broadcast means they stand to lose long-term advertising contracts. At least two respondents confirmed that this has affected their financial stability and ability to pay salaries on time.
The general perception among smaller TV channels is that, if a media house as prominent as Geo TV can be targeted in the form of disruptions to transmission – with obvious implications for how this affects their business and compels them to engage in what one respondent termed ‘cost reduction exercises’ – then they, too, have little choice but to fall in line.
The systematic curtailment of freedom of expression in the form of press advice, intimidation and harassment, reportedly by the establishment, has left many journalists and their management too vulnerable to resist. Reprisals have taken ominous forms, including abduction and assault in several instances.
Verbal press advice received either on the telephone or during a visit, usually pertains to what should not be published or broadcast. HRCP’s interviews reveal most commonly tabooed subjects.
At least two respondents report having been warned that news transmissions must use the words ‘criminal’ or ‘convicted’ – rather than ‘former Prime Minister’ – to identify Nawaz Sharif. Other topics unpopular with the establishment, at least three respondents have claimed, include criticism of the PTI.
Another reportedly common piece of press advice to the broadcast media is that the channel should give greater coverage to PTI rallies and only minimal coverage to other parties’ events. Other issues raised over what one respondent termed ‘a friendly cup of tea’ – the standard euphemism applied to summons from establishment – include questions pertaining to coverage of national security issues, editorial policies and even reporters’ sources.
Many print and broadcast journalists say that a common consequence of ‘disobeying’ instructions is vicious character assassinations through anonymous social media accounts and social networking platforms that go so far as to incite violence against media persons – and in the case of women, rape threats.
In at least two cases, respondents in the print media say they were called in for questioning and interrogated about international funding and contact with separatists. At least seven editors and reporters in GB have testified to receiving press advice and being threatened with dire consequences – including threats of arrest, violence or death – if they do not comply.
Overall, continuing intimidation and the perceived need to self-censor has severely hampered objective journalism. It has also taken a toll on members of staff, some of whom have refused to work or left. This has left particularly the newspapers beleaguered, with threats also emanating from religious radicals, separatists and officials of nationalist or political parties if news on their activities is not published.
Several respondents specified that the quid pro quo for strictly following directions is the promise of access to eventsand personalities. However, senior representatives of the establishment, they claim, often offer bribes of foreign travel, allotment of plots and other privileges, professional advancement, cash bribes, promises of advertisement revenue and government jobs.
At least five respondents in Lahore and one in Islamabad felt that journalists’ trade unions were too splintered to speak with one voice against such instances of intimidation and harassment. Many had been either compromised or were too afraid to take a strong stand, even going so far, said one respondent, as to ‘blame the victim’.
Press advice to social media users, especially those critical of state policies, has also increased. Any criticism of the policies or discussions of extremist violence attracts the most press advice.
Respondents alleged that the agencies such as the FIA have begun to call social media users for ‘hearings’ relating to their online activity, albeit with no supporting official orders. It is not uncommon to receive direct requests to delete specific tweets and, in one respondent’s case, to be asked to report ‘objectionable’ tweets.
Based on its findings, HRCP called upon on the federal and provincial governments of Pakistan, and their organs to: “Take due notice of the complaints it has presented. Take appropriate steps to prohibit and prevent unauthorized, illegal and unlawful interference with freedom of expression in the country. Protect the right of television channel and news publication owners to function with dignity and in peace. There should be no interference in the sale and distribution of any newspaper, nor should any TV channels be deliberately displaced. The system of issuing ‘press advice’ or press-advice-like ‘instructions’ must cease immediately. All complaints of this nature should be redressed promptly. Complete and effective information commissions are set up in each province to implement the state’s obligations under the Right of Access to Information Act 2017.”