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May 3, 2021

Freedom of the press?

Editorial

 
May 3, 2021

The many perils of practising journalism in Pakistan just seem to grow each year. From having to contend with governments and political parties that are not above using intimidation and even violence, to dealing with a major financial crunch in an industry that is struggling to maintain independence, to battling online vigilantism and attacks, journalists in Pakistan risk their lives and livelihood every single day to tell stories that matter. Today, World Press Freedom Day, serves as a reminder to governments around the world to respect their commitments to press freedom. The Freedom Network’s annual state of press freedom report released on April 30 has highlighted a dramatic escalation in the climate of intimidation and harassment of journalists and the media in the country. Legal cases have emerged as the biggest threat to journalists and media professionals, and Islamabad has been declared the ‘riskiest’ and ‘dangerous’ place to practise journalism in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s journalists are no strangers to intimidation and harassment. The relationship between the state and the media in Pakistan has always been a tense one. Starting with newspapers in the Ayub Khan era to the birth of private news channels during the dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf, the media has a long tradition of proud independence. However, the past few years have seen an unprecedented increase in these challenges. As access to information becomes increasingly difficult, the overall environment is suffocating freedom of expression. It is disturbing to note that at least 148 cases of attacks and violations against media professionals have been reported in just one year – from May 2020 to April 2021. This is an increase of over 40 percent from 91 cases of violations documented in the previous year.

When attacks on journalism and journalists increase, they reflect a collective failure of government and state institutions anywhere in the world. In Pakistan too it presents a dismal failure on the part of the state to honour its commitments to uphold people’s rights to speak in a fearless environment. In fact, it has been argued that ever more sophisticated methods of silencing dissenting voices have been adopted in recent years. With both visible and invisible interests joining forces to curb the freedom of expression in Pakistan, it is about time the government took this issue seriously. Denying citizens their right to information automatically taints our democracy at all levels. It also allows the state to propagate its own narrative without challenge. Restricting public debate serves the interests only of entrenched powers. Pakistan’s media needs to take stock of the direction in which it is headed. A free press is vital to the healthy functioning of any democracy. The constitutional protections that exist to protect our freedom of speech need to be seen more as reality than in the abstract. We must remember that a journalist fearful of doing his/her job translates into a society that is silenced.