Two reports from credible platforms underline the state of press and media freedom in Pakistan today
he Press Freedom Day is celebrated every May 3 since 1993, the date chosen to recall the 1991 Windhoek Declaration, an iteration of press freedom principles by African journalists in Namibia. This year the theme for the celebration is “Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of Expression as a Driver for all other human rights”.
This theme places freedom of expression centre-stage in the struggle for rights, democracy, good governance and sustainable development. It is obvious that without freedom of expression, neither individuals nor communities can voice their opinions, share information and engage in public debates that lead to awareness of and, hopefully, realisation of other rights. In this context, it is critical to remember the significance of press and media freedom in ensuring transparency and accountability in a democratic society.
For those who understand the role of journalism as being unafraid to speak the truth to power, the risks, challenges and dangers this entails are clear. These risks include uncertainties about employment and security. Only in genuine democratic systems can justice be done to this calling. In most of today’s world, however, this basis for the exercise of freedom of expression and speaking the truth to power exists more in the breach than in adherence. These freedoms are hemmed in by authoritarian governments, political players, state actors, powerful corporations and extremist outfits. Perhaps never before in the history of journalism have these threats and restrictions been greater.
What has been added to the well known threats to life, liberty and freedom of expression for journalists today is the added pitfalls of social media smearing of reputations and credibility, false news and the other ‘blessings’ the once welcomed ‘democratisation’ of expression through such conduits heralded.
Two reports from credible platforms underline the state of press and media freedom in Pakistan today. First and foremost, Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) has issued its annual World Press Freedom Index (WPFI), which shows that the situation for freedom of expression and truthful journalism in 31 countries of the 180 covered is ‘very serious’, ‘difficult’ in 42, ‘problematic’ in 55, and ‘good’ or ‘satisfactory’ in 52. In short, the environment for journalism is ‘bad’ in 70 percent of the 180 countries. WFPI informs us that Pakistan has improved its ranking in 2023 to 150 out of 180 countries. In 2022, its ranking was 157. According to RSF, the change of government in 2022 ‘loosened’ constraints on the media.
Any crossing the invisible but well known ‘red lines’ of the powers-that-be can lead to in-depth surveillance, verbal threats, abduction and detention in official or ‘unofficial’ jails.
However, the WPFI goes on to point out the continuing dangers, including Pakistan’s repute as being among the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists, with 3-4 murders every year, often linked to corruption or illegal trafficking cases, which go unpunished. Any crossing the invisible but well known ‘red lines’ of the powers-that-be can lead to in-depth surveillance, verbal threats, abduction and detention in official or ‘unofficial’ jails. Despite the Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Act 2021, there is little if any protection for journalists. The Act was supposed to lead to the establishment of a safety commission to ensure impunity for crimes against journalists, which is rife, is reduced if not eliminated. Unfortunately, as is the case with most of our high sounding legislation, of which there is hardly a dearth, implementation remains a will o’ the wisp. The safety commission in question has not been set up and there are no signs of the task being taken up in earnest any time soon.
The other report referred to above is the Pakistan Press Freedom Report (PPFR) by the Freedom Network, a platform associated with RSF. This report shows that 140 cases of threats and attacks against journalists, media organisations and professionals were reported between May 2022 and March 2023. Press freedom violations came in at 140 in 2022-23 compared to 86 in 2021-22. The spoken, written or implied threats to life and limb persuade many journalists to plump for self-censorship. In this trend, the material interests of corporate media managements and the erosion if not annihilation of the institution of professional editor have also had their roles. In one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, PPFR highlights Islamabad as the most dangerous place, the Punjab second and Sindh third. However, a separate press report has underlined that Balochistan, in the throes of a nationalist insurgency (and occasional religious extremist terrorist attacks) is a virtual ‘minefield’ for journalists.
Pakistan has a history of military coups, martial law regimes and authoritarian civilian governments (whether elected or not). But parallel to this history there has existed a glorious history of resistance to repressive regimes. The media too (initially only print), despite severe repression, has its pantheon of heroes who faced severe physical torture and even death but refused to compromise their commitment to the truth. If this was possible in a relatively narrow media universe, followed when the period of relative liberalisation and expansion of the media transpired from the 1990s onwards by journalists learning the tricks of ‘writing between the lines’, one would have thought the digitalised media landscape today would offer greater scope for such techniques. Perhaps this ‘skill’ has fallen off due to other reasons. One is the very proliferation of print, television and social media has contributed significantly to addling and confusing the brains of at least 2-3 generations because of the sheer volume of information, comment and opinion we are all bombarded with relentlessly every day. This development has increased the use of the ‘delete’ button without even reading most of the stuff thrown our way, which in any case seems impossible within the confines of a single working day. Second, partly our floundering education system, partly the ‘Age of Distraction’ we all live in has weaned our youth off reading books that provide in-depth, researched, critical knowledge that cannot be replaced by social media.
In this respect we are not alone. The world as a whole is passing through similar experiences and influences. Mankind will no doubt find rational solutions to these conundrums, hopefully soon, but we in Pakistan need to reiterate our commitment to a truthful, unafraid, objective journalism that fulfills its inherent duty to speak the truth to power, unflinchingly.
The writer is a former editor of one of Pakistan’s major English language newspapers