2020 presents a grim picture for press freedom in Pakistan – Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)
2020 presents a grim picture for press freedom in Pakistan with multiple attempts to silence the voices of the media in the print, broadcast and online spheres.
The media in Pakistan continues to work under an environment of fear and significant constraints to press freedom. The year 2020, so far, has seen numerous attempts to silence journalists and media personnel. The use of criminal complaints, abductions and online harassment have created an environment where the media is operating under high pressure with little to no security, protection or accountability for the perpetrators of these attacks.
According to the report by Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) to commemorate the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalist 2020 there have been a number of brazen attempts to intimidate and in turn silence journalists by picking them up and orchestrating their disappearances. The year saw two high profile abductions of journalists — Matiullah Jan from the capital, Islamabad and Ali Imran Syed in Karachi. Both cases were strongly condemned and the federal and provincial governments had ‘taken notice’ of the incidents. In both instances, the journalists were found safe hours after they went missing.
In Jan’s case, CCTV footage of the moments before he was abducted were circulated on social media. The Supreme Court of Pakistan took up the case of the senior journalist’s abduction and has recently rejected the report by the Islamabad Inspector General of Police.
In at least one instance during 2020, a journalist was murdered in what appeared to be an act in connection to his work. On February 16, the body of KTN news channel and Sindh-language daily Kawish, Aziz Memon, was found in a water channel in the Naushahro Firoze district of the Sindh province.
These acts of picking up journalists show a worrying trend that appears to have been used to restrict press freedom in the country. In both cases, officials are yet to determine who was behind the acts. Such attempts of intimidation create an environment of fear for both the media and their loved ones. The lack of accountability or conclusive rulings to determine who was behind these abductions or disappearances, allows the perpetrators to get away scot free.
Journalists have also faced other forms of physical attacks such as being beaten, verbally threatened and arrested.
After being arrested in March, almost eight months later, the Jang and Geo Media Group Editor in Chief Mir Shakilur Rehman is still imprisoned on the basis of an old property case. In at least five other instances, journalists have been arrested during 2020.
When they are not physically attacked, journalists are often threatened, a tool that can lead to self censorship by creating an environment of fear.
In August, investigative journalist Ahmad Noorani received life threats following the publication of his investigative piece regarding the business fortunes of former director general of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Retired Lt Gen Asim Saleem Bajwa.
Another common trend observed during this year was the registration of First Information Reports (criminal complaints) against media personnel. These criminal complaints use similar sections of laws such as the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 and the Pakistan Penal Code. The cases registered against journalists show a growing policing of their content shared on social media platforms and accuse them of anti-state content. This raises questions about the misuse or rather overuse of laws that regulate content. It also represents a growing intolerance against free expression online. Within the span of a week, three cases registered against media workers — The Express Tribune Editor Bilal Farooqi, former Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) Chairman Absar Alam and journalist Asad Ali Toor — were reported.
In 2020, journalists have faced threats not just physically but also online. Women journalists in particular have been subject to abuse and threats online. This shows that social media platforms, considered to be an open space for communication, have increasingly become areas for threats and abuse to be launched against media professionals. It also highlights the particular circumstances that women journalists in Pakistan have to work within.
During the year, the media regulatory authorities — PEMRA and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) — have appeared to be overactive with multiple directives to restrict, control and limit the sharing of certain content.
While these bodies are essential to ensure media content follows certain guidelines, during this year, they have restricted content that is vital for the public to form opinions, remain aware of key developments in the country and to be able to freely access information. Advice and directives issued by PEMRA have played the role of controlling the information that the public has access to rather than just creating guidelines for the media to follow.
There has also been a rise in the policing of content on social media platforms. Perhaps the most drastic of steps was the short term ban on popular social media app, Tik Tok, due to complaints of “immoral/indecent content” and the platform’s failure to comply with instructions to develop a mechanism for moderation.
In 2020, the spread of the COVID-19 has also created a new set of challenges for the media to work with including remote working, ensuring protocols are in place in newsrooms and most importantly ensuring the safety and health of media workers from the virus. Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) focused on the impact of the pandemic on the media in Pakistan in its annual report published on World Press Freedom Day. This report focuses on press freedom and covers the specific restrictions to press freedom that journalists have faced in light of their coverage of the coronavirus.
At the same time, the rhetoric of the ruling party and Prime Minister Imran Khan has been dismissive towards the threats to free expression faced in the country. In an interview in September, the premier said that it was the government and ministers that felt “unprotected” not the media. He said that in Pakistan’s history, no government had received the criticism that they are.
While the media faces attacks from all fronts — whether in the physical or online sphere– and operates within a shrinking space for free expression, perpetrators of these attacks continue to enjoy impunity for their crimes. Both provincial and federal governments officials issue statements and take notice of incidents but there are very few instances of conclusive results of investigations of such incidents. Those who employ tactics to silence the voices of the media and to create an environment where journalists resort to self censorship are further emboldened by the lack of action against those who attack the media.