Saturday September 25, 2021

Article 19

September 16, 2020

It seems that Article 19 has mysteriously been stricken off our constitution and no longer exists at all. In recent months, and over the past few years, there has been a visible new trend in the country – of journalists and activists being targeted via legal charges being drawn against them. The charges can be anything from sedition to treason to promotion of sectarian discord. The past few days have seen quite a few journalists having had charges drawn up against them, including Absar Alam, Bilal Faruqi and Asad Toor. In most places, use of social media would be seen merely as an expression of opinion, and of the opinions of other people they quote in their stories but clearly such journalism is not acceptable in a country whose prime minister claims complete freedom of the press.

We have over the past few years seen how media organisations have had to self-censor, how journalists have come under attack, and newspapers and news channels have suddenly gone off air or disappeared from hawkers lists. Ironically, even as the country is in the midst of its longest sustained period of democratic rule and when there are more media organisations than ever before, the space for dissent has narrowed. Another glaring example of the state of media freedom in the country is the continued incarceration of Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, editor-in-chief of the Jang/Geo Group.

All this does not do much for Pakistan's reputation around the world. Instead, we see more and more international rights bodies criticizing the lack of press freedom in Pakistan, with the CPJ, the Human Rights Watch, and other bodies coming out with strong statements about the condition of press freedom in Pakistan. That social media is being targeted is particularly worrisome because at its best it offers an outlet to marginalised voices. Journalists should not be forced into making the difficult choice of informing the public and keeping themselves safe. All governments must understand that journalism is not and should not be PR. The task for journalists in the country is to carve out a space for themselves where they can continue to their job of holding the powerful accountable and informing the public. We hope they can do that without fear of being hauled into jail on flimsy charges.