A stifling environment for the press has detrimental consequences for democracy, society and journalism
Anyone writing truthfully about the state of media in Pakistan would almost certainly experience a frisson of apprehension. For this exercise to be meaningful, one must be prepared to court a level of discomfort, indeed hazard. This year’s World Press Freedom Day (May 3) offers an opportunity to this writer to step out of the comfort of the ivory tower and dip his toe into the hurly-burly of Pakistani journalism. No worthwhile analysis of the situation — the ever-tightening boundaries against which journalists operate — makes sense without unmasking the shadowy actors who have virtually set up a guillotine to snap the heads off of investigating and intrepid journalists.
An enormously complicating factor is the role of politicians on both sides of the aisle. They, too, figure in the array of challenges journalists face in this country. Journalist Asad Ali Toor’s remarks some two years ago, for instance, still echo following what he alleged was a raid carried out at his house. He had also pointed an accusing finger at the previous government, describing it as the worst in terms of curtailment of journalistic freedoms. Journalists supportive of Imran Khan are now on a harrowing receiving end. The vicious cycle continues. Against this backdrop, one could argue that the state and society in Pakistan leave little room for both independent journalism and oppositional politics. This has consequences for democracy and freedom of expression in Pakistan.
The latest World Press Freedom Index puts Pakistan at 150 out of 180 countries. These stats are for the year 2022. We could expect the same dismal scenario for the ongoing year, even worse. Another global media watchdog has described Islamabad as “the riskiest place for practicing journalism with as many as 140 cases of threats against journalists reported in a single year.” If this is not daunting, read this: “97 journalists and media workers have been killed in Pakistan since 2011,” according to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists.
Probably for the first time some journalists with large followings have moved abroad. Journalist Arshad Sharif’s murder in Kenya following the sacking of Imran Khan’s government came as the inflection point in violence against independent media voices in Pakistan. Journalists in exile are also a new phenomenon on the media horizon. Running their YouTube vlogs seamlessly, these prominent journalists have added a new dimension of contrarian discourse across the country. Indeed, these YouTubers offer precious new perspectives on social and political aspects of Pakistani life. They also provide information that keeps flowing to them uninterruptedly from Pakistan. Distance hasn’t dried up their sources. They enjoy huge credibility because of their capacity to challenge the status quo, among other things. Other voices from abroad, representing Pakistani diaspora in Canada and Britain in particular, are impacting politics and society in the country. Taboo subjects are now the mainstay of these conversations from afar. Nothing is sacred any longer.
The media landscape could get scarier sooner rather than later. Of real concern to independent media TV channels and newspapers is the ongoing mutually destructive battle between the parliament and the Supreme Court. If the superior judiciary gets mauled in this battle, courageous journalists would find themselves in double jeopardy. In the absence of protection provided by the judges, who have a symbiotic relationship with independent media, journalists could become an easy target for the Executive and, more seriously, for those who operate in the shadows. A democratic media cannot function in the absence of an effective judiciary. This is the lesson we could draw from across the border in India, where during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency in the 1970s some key journalists found themselves in prison. There are known instances of Indian judges providing a protective umbrella to prominent journalists like Kuldip Nayar.
However, the Human Rights Watch believes that judges in Pakistan muzzle critics in the media. “They are using broad contempt powers to censor the press. In recent years courts have openly issued a flurry of orders that seek to limit the media’s right to free expression.” Free media is, of course, important for the Judiciary and parliament. It is significant that Pakistan’s independent media have been supportive of the top judges in their spat with ruling politicians. The chief justice might be humbled by a queer confluence of conspiratorial elements. In that case he would need free media on his side. It is sad that we are missing credible pathways for pursuing justice for murdered journalists. This radically works against the freedom of expression in Pakistan. In the absence of well-defined avenues for providing justice to slain victims, chances to prevent future killings are dim. The non-stop clobbering of the media therefore, sounds rather routine.
International media watchdog organisations occasionally point to a culture of impunity in Pakistan. It essentially means that state institutions duck responsibility for brutalising nonconforming journalists. Acts of intimidation go unchallenged and unaccountable. On the other hand, press in Pakistan finds solace in numbers to compensate for the unwillingness or inability of government institutions to create a safe environment for the press or tackle the ongoing issue of impunity in the murders of journalists. CPJ finds Pakistani press “divided and alone.”
The sombre outlook for the media landscape in Pakistan also serves as a damper for the young men and women who genuinely wish to embrace journalism as their vocation. Universities across the country have set up vibrant media teaching programmes. When a society starts murdering its best and brightest journalists, we can hardly expect genuinely enthusiastic young people to form a job-seeking queue outside newspaper offices.
This year’s World Press Freedom Day brings home a stark message to all citizens: a free media is a blessing in that it keeps a vigil over those who seek to smother and stifle independent voices through brute force.
The writer teaches media writing and communication at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). He is a former editor of The Frontier Post.