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The crusaders of our society

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By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed
Tue, 05, 21

They talked about the challenges faced by the media, discussed ways to stay united and safe and the need for state authorities in protecting journalists to uphold the right to express freedom…

Every year on May 3rd, World Press Freedom Day is observed with a resolve to protect the journalists’ right to express truth against all odds. With every passing day things are getting tougher and journalists are facing difficulties in performing their duties. On one side, there are restrictions imposed by the state authorities and on the other side, they have to face threats from mafias operating at the private level. As exposure of their wrongdoings can cause problems for these mafias, they target the journalists in a bid to stop them from exposing them to the public. Over the last many years, there have been incidences of forced disappearance of journalists, armed assaults leading to injuries and even death and negative propaganda unleashed against them just for questioning the wrong. If all this was not enough, the new media – or online media as one may call it – has created more challenges for journalists, especially the women journalists who are trolled extensively in the online space. This week You! spoke to veteran journalists, media rights campaigners, union leaders, lawyers and human rights activists to share their views. They talked about the challenges faced by the media, discussed ways to stay united and safe and the need for state authorities in protecting journalists to uphold the right to express freedom…

Benazir Shah

Features Editor at Geo News

The most pressing issue journalists’ face is censorship and the ambiguity of what the red lines are. What reporters can talk about and what they cannot keeps changing every single day. For example, one day anchors refer to Tehreek-e-Labbaik as an unnamed religious organisation on TV; while the next day, after the prime minister’s speech, the organisation has a name. There are many such examples of topics which are allowed one day and not allowed another.

It is primarily because of this stifling atmosphere on mainstream media that many female and male journalists are now turning to YouTube and other social media platforms to continue reporting. There are anchors who have a show on TV and on YouTube simultaneously, primarily because what they cannot say on TV, they can say on YouTube. However, YouTube has its limitations too. One, you are on your own and you also have to be careful and self-censor when you run a social media channel. And two, there is no quality control on the platform. There are no editors and sub-editors who can push reporters to verify their information before going public with it.

My message to young reporters would be to continue reporting. I am certain the media will outlast the censorship. Also, it is important for the media to remember that regardless of who is in the government, the media will always be in the opposition. It is our job to continue to ask questions, to tell the truth and to hold the government accountable.

Farah Zia

Former editor The News on Sunday, freelance journalist and Director, HRCP

The challenges for media personnel are on various levels. When we use the term media personnel instead of journalist, we acknowledge that forms of media have undergone a sea change from the good old print to electronic to digital to social media. Along with forms, tools of censorship have been changing too. The biggest challenge therefore - curbs on freedom of expression - and is not something new in our context; media has historically never been free.

The state has always used laws and financial squeeze against media houses but in the current scenario, these curbs have reached a level where they are facing an existential threat. The threat has actualised for many individual media personnel who have been forcefully evicted from the field and their voice silenced. The media houses have been overtly colluding with the state, and free expression is a casualty.

Journalists’ trade unions, a safeguard against power be it political or of the employer, were crushed and divided long time back. But today, there is no unity among television channels of conventional media houses when it comes to protecting freedom of expression, because market is what matters for them. The new media too is characterised by pandering to the market and caters to a different kind of ethics. The new media may have democratised the populace and given voice to everyone but journalistic ethics and editorial standards have taken a back seat.

Freedom of the press is an essential democratic value. You can’t have democracy or expect the society to progress without giving people the right to express their difference of opinion or debate things. This is a consensus that we have to reach amongst ourselves as a society first. As for media, if the consensus is that it is to be run as business and not as collective good, we don’t have much hope. It has to come forward and regulate itself, it has to unite itself against all curbs and for the well-being of media personnel.

Adnan Rehmat

A freelance journalist and media development specialist

Pakistan has caught up to the global trend of the transformation of national media landscapes whereby increasingly legacy media is losing the trust of citizens as a key source of information. This is partly due to the rising trend of abandonment of public interest journalism mandate by the media as well as technological disruption. Information is a public good so when people cannot access information that they need to inform their decisions, they will start trading it themselves, particularly on social media. This is, in Pakistan, giving rise to independent non-legacy digital platforms that have started focusing on local communities to service their specific information needs and thereby assuming the mantle of public interest journalism. Recently, a group of over a dozen such platforms that represent a breath-taking range of alternative voices, issues, age demographics, regions and languages came together to establish the Digital Media Alliance of Pakistan (DigiMAP) promising a commitment to focusing public interest journalism that the legacy media is losing interest in. But this is not an easy job – key challenges include professionalising content to ‘news you can use’ formats to make them relevant to digitally savvy local communities, media viability in a way that improves access to both private and public sector advertising as well as innovation in monetisation of information delivery. Efforts need to be made to ensure that the emerging ecosystem of public interest information and access to it is supported as means of strengthening the diversity and pluralism of news and opinion that is the touchstone of open societies and participatory democracy.

Shahzada Zulfiqar

Veteran journalist and President Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ)

My focus would be on the role of journalists’ unions in addressing the issues faced by journalists and restoring their dignity and effectiveness that have waned over time. There shall be no personnel agenda and all the resources and energies of unions shall be for the welfare of journalists. The PFUJ has drafted a 19-point agenda that it has presented to the government apart from announcement to launch a long march to Islamabad. The march was delayed because of Covid-19 situation in the country. I feel glad that three of these demands have already been met. These include implementation of wage board award, registration of journalists for Covid-19 vaccination and government’s decision to review applicability of draconian PECA laws on journalists.

Aftab Alam

Executive Editor Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development (IRADA) and law and policy expert with focus on press freedom

At present, media personnel are facing multiple challenges. These challenges include: shrinking space for freedom of expression in the society, rising number of physical attacks on journalists and media workers, increasing actions under criminal and cyber laws against information practitioners and massive layoffs by the media houses.

In Pakistan, more than 45 per cent of the population have access to broadband internet. Nearly 25 per cent of its population uses social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, etc. Traditional commercial media – television and newspapers – outlets in Pakistan are either captive of financial interests of their owners or facing financial curbs from the state. Internet-based technological revolution is rapidly making Pakistanis to look towards online digital media platforms instead of television and newspapers for information, news and views.

Therefore, strengthening online/digital media platforms, better knowledge of legal and regulatory challenges and curbs among media personnel, and collective voices to combat censorship can help deal with the situation.

Expansion of online space and increase in internet-based digital media platforms have resulted in new challenges and issues as well. These include legal and regulatory issues like: internet governance; privacy invasion; and misinformation, disinformation or fake news. To deal with the situation, journalists must equip themselves with the latest technological skill to impart information – distinction between misinformation, disinformation and fake news. A good knowledge of changing legal and regulatory framework governing internet and online spaces is a must.

IRADA, being a research-based advocacy organisation, produces annual review of media legal environment of the country. This report covers incidents of crimes against journalists. IRADA has recently launched a dedicated legal aid cell to support journalists and media practitioners in combating impunity of crimes against them and defend them in the court of law.

Mehmal Sarfraz

A journalist, analyst, political commentator and media rights activist

Press freedom in Pakistan is something that can never be taken for granted. Journalists have fought for their freedoms in this country for decades. Each time we think we have achieved some freedoms, there is an attack on it.

This is a country where the government demonises the media that is critical of its performance, where journalists are discredited by outright lies and by calling them ‘lifafa’; where social media teams are hired to troll journalists who question the government; where columns are dropped, where analysts are blacklisted; where PEMRA gives guidelines to products on how to make their television advertisements; where dramas are given warnings due to ‘indecent’ content when there is none; where journalists even censor themselves on social media for fear of consequences. No wonder then that Pakistan is ranked 145th in the Press Freedom Index.

Despite all this, Pakistani journalists are resilient and do say a lot through subtle means. They have just found ways of not being too direct but still get their message across. Let’s hope that the coming years see the media in a better place than where it is today.