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April 21, 2021

Disappearing freedoms

Editorial

 
April 21, 2021

Pakistan currently stands at the 145th position among 179 countries in the World Press Freedom Index 2021 published by the international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF). This means it has slipped even further down the list from last year – when it was on the equally unenviable 142nd position. As such, journalists in the country today have had to internalize the pressures they face – to the extent that self-censorship has become an unfortunate by-product of their jobs. Meanwhile, shibboleths of the state cannot be challenged, and anything deemed a threat is either vilified or silenced. Both national and international observers and media professionals have cited the various ways pressure is exerted on the media in Pakistan – be it electronic, print, or social.

Unfortunately, Pakistani journalists and the media have continued to face unrelenting attacks, especially over the past few years. From journalists being physically attacked – the most recent being former Pemra chairman Absar Alam who was shot and injured by an unknown assailant late evening yesterday – to journalism being attacked via the censor to media owners being targeted in flimsy cases, it is a wonder that journalism here still tries to fight back by constantly pushing for more space in an increasingly stifled environment. It is also an unfortunate fact that the rise of social media, and the easy dissemination of unverified news, has made it more difficult to distinguish fact from propaganda. Add to this toxic mix governments that want to control the news and it becomes obvious that a ‘free media’ is under threat. In all this, the recent media blackout – accompanied by a short and temporary social media block – in Pakistan regarding the TLP protests was yet another sign of the dwindling freedom of expression. Independent journalism is a hallmark of all modern democracies and no excuse can serve as a reason to curb media freedoms. Attempting to put a curtain over any kind of political development in the country can only open up the doors to rumour and conjecture, based on social media which is unfiltered and unchecked. And while it may be tempting to always blame the media, the fact is that it has little option but to exercise caution. Journalists who have displayed independence and courage in the past have often been threatened and even killed. In such circumstances, media houses are forced into making the difficult choice between informing the public and keeping their journalists safe.

Apart from the obvious dangers journalists find themselves in, there is also a new – and increasing – issue of online harassment campaigns, especially against women media professionals. Social media harassment campaigns by ‘trolls’ are tolerated and no significant action is taken while journalists face dire consequences if they refuse to toe the line. Journalism is supposed to be the mirror in which a society and its political order can see their real face. Covering up this mirror helps no one. The task for Pakistan’s journalists now is to continue to carve out a space for themselves where they can uncover the darkened mirror.