It could be a message for all ‘critical voices’ not merely journalists but people from a cross section of society. The pattern was not something journalists were not used to. It happened with many of them in different circumstances, some were not as lucky as my colleague and the independence of judiciary and rule of law.
Not all of us agree with his views and expression but we all know he is a man of integrity. Why independent media and dissenting voices in the media under attack? Who is not happy and wants to suppress it, not only through incidents like this one but also through arms twisting in one way or the other. Even powerful voices in the media have not even been tolerated on social media and attempts have been made to block and check their social media accounts, YouTube channels, making things really hard for them to survive. It’s all together a different and most difficult challenge for the media practitioners.
In the last two years, there had been a systematic crackdown on the social media and against bloggers through PECA, 2016 and the recent ban on ‘Tik-talk’ should also be seen in the backdrop of past actions.
The message apparently is clear and independent voices are under ‘surveillance’ and on the radar of those who in their own view ‘crossed’ certain red line. Media is also under constant attack from the social media activists of different political parties. Criticism is always welcome but the threat is dangerous as only last year seven journalists had been killed in Pakistan and it is still regarded as among the five dangerous countries for reporting.
Matiullah’s early release became possible due to the strong and collective voice of journalist fraternity, not only within the country but also from international journalists and human rights bodies. Political parties and civil society including bar associations reacted sharply and Islamabad High Court, chief justice took a prompt notice on the petition. All this helps in exerting pressure on the alleged kidnappers and those behind the move. But those responsible should be arrested and it would not be difficult through multi-million rupees ‘Safe City Project’.
One must also appreciate the reaction from the human rights minister Shireen Mazari’s reaction followed by the statement of Federal Information Minister Shibli Faraz and reported directives from Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Journalism has never been easy in Pakistan. Many journalists had laid down their lives in the line of duty. Out of 120 cases of journalists killed only five cases went to the court level and only in two cases alleged suspects faced conviction while appeals are still pending in their cases as well like in the case of US reporter Daniel Pearl and Wali Khan Babar.
It would be wrong to merely blame the federal government. Even the provincial governments have not done anything to protect the journalists. The killing of journalist Azizullah Memon in Sindh raised serious questions. Although his alleged killers had been arrested, the SP, who allegedly tried to destroy the evidence and initially released some key suspects did not even face suspension.
When Imran Khan assumed power two years ago in his very first address to the nation as prime minister of Pakistan, he not only thanked the media but also assured freedom of the press in the country.
In the last two years, he brought three information ministers Fawad Chaudhry, Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan and now the combination of Shibli Faraz as full minister and Lt Gen Asim Saleem Bajwa (retd) as special assistant on information. But things are going from bad to worst.
Instead of making things better and allowing media ‘freedom’ it was brought under pressure through various means. Pakistan’s two most powerful media houses Jang and Dawn became its prime target.
Arrest of Jang/Geo Editor-in-Chief Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman is a classical example of exerting pressure on the independent policy of the group. He had been in the NAB custody and now in prison for the past four months.
Hurdles were created to entertain his path to justice despite it being a 34 years old plot case which is at best a civil matter, nothing to do with NAB. There is no reason to think that there is some persecution going on for which why the Jang/Geo Editor-in-Chief is arrested for almost five months, though nothing has been proven against him, let alone trial properly even started.
Jang and Geo also faced hardship when their advertisements were blocked and so was the case of Dawn. Geo was also pushed to later numbers and only got relief when it challenged Pemra’s action in the court.
The latest is the warning from Pemra to the country’s most popular host Shahzeb Khanzada, who hosts a top rated show ‘Aaj Shahzeb Khanzada kay Saath’. Surprisingly, he was warned for criticising the NAB chairman and could be charged with sedition.
In the last two years, Pemra had issued hundreds of notices to different channels but never an anchorperson been warned of sedition.
The story has not ended here as pressure also mounted on some other channels because of their critical views. From Talat Hussain to Najam Sethi and from Matiullah Jan to Umar Cheema or Ahmad Noorani, there is a list of journalists and anchors ‘disliked both in government and other circles’.
The Supreme Court judgment on the bail of Kh Saad Rafiq and Salman Rafiq’s case should be seen as ‘eye opener’ as it set the basic principle of justice. There are still many behind bars without charges. A person is innocent unless proven guilty. It’s the other way round in Pakistan.
It is high time that all media houses and journalist bodies wake up like they woke up in Matiullah Jan’s case to defend the freedom of the press and for the protection of journalists and for their welfare.
The writer is a senior columnist and analyst at Geo, Jang and The News.
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