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May 9, 2021

Protecting journalists

 
May 9, 2021

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 Pakistan. 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. Apart from legal cases, the Freedom Network also notes that journalists must also contend with threats of murder or violence as well as arrest by law enforcement. Which is why in a welcome move, at a time when there have been increased incidents of the harassment and even abduction of journalists, the federal cabinet has finally approved two bills – the Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Bill, and the Forced or Involuntary Disappearance (Criminal Law Amendment) Bill. Both bills are significant at a time when such cases have been increasingly reported across the country. The bills will now need to make their way through parliament. Ironically, they coincide with notices served by the Islamabad High Court on the FIA for serving notices to journalists under the Cyber Crimes Act for criticising the government or other bodies. The court has noted that if criticism is criminalised in this fashion, it will become impossible to stop the process.

This is a problem that has been growing in the country. Attempts to dictate what journalists say and write is contrary to the provisions of the Pakistan constitution, and also to the basic need for people to enjoy free expression in a democratic land. It has been a long and continuing battle to ensure that the Pakistani state understands this rather basic concept. From imposing unnecessary censorship to using regulators like Pemra as tools of such censorship, to journalists being shot, abducted or threatened – there is little doubt that the state has failed to provide journalism the protection and status it deserves. By most understanding, the drafted Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Bill 2021 is a fair attempt at outlining the basic rights of Pakistan's journalists, including their right to report from conflict areas within the country, without fear of harassment or violence. It is necessary that there be recognition of just how difficult it is and has been for journalists to cover conflict areas in the country. The law also proposes government protection of journalists from violence and intimidation by individuals and institutions (private or public) etc. For this purpose, a commission has been proposed – with representatives from journalist unions and press clubs – to investigate cases in which journalists have faced harassment or threats. The bill has also asked media houses to put forward provisions and codes for the protection of journalists. Details of the bill against forced disappearances are to be disclosed at a later point.

The attempt by the government to ensure journalists are protected as a group which is vital to society is important. Ethical journalism can take place only if journalists are protected – and not prevented – from the inevitable fallouts of speaking truth to power. Pakistan's journalists contend with increasing and diverse ways of censorship. Organised campaigns are launched against them, and even new-media bloggers and some already in the media are only too eager to join in the attacks. Dissenting voices are often picked up and some have even had to flee the country. The end result is a media that is fearful of doing its job. We hope that these bills can play a part in protecting journalists at a time when international reports put Pakistan as one of the nations where journalists face threats and violence in the course of their professional duties.