During 2019, the Imran Khan government made several moves to curb free speech and rein in the media as a means to divert attention from governance issues
Another year of travails, some of the worst in recent memory, has rolled by for the media in Pakistan, which hardly stands out for its free speech environment. Pakistan ranked a pathetic 142 out of 172 countries on the 2019 global annual press freedom ranking of global media freedom watchdog Reporters Sans Frontiers. Afghanistan and India, its neighbours which themselves have serious press freedom issues, ranked dozens of notches better than Pakistan on this index. It’s that bad.
Imran Khan marked his first year in power in 2019 and he has been a revelation in terms of his government’s undisguised contempt for the media throughout the year characterised by a steady erosion in the freedom of expression environment. Facing harsh criticism for its failures in delivering on pre-election pledges and growing economic hardship, the government became increasingly intolerant of dissent as the year progressed.
During the year the Imran Khan government made several moves aimed at curbing both free speech and reining in of media as a means of diverting attention from its governance failures. The cabinet and its ministers have variously announced measures including merging media regulators for print, electronic and internet into a singular body with draconian powers to fine and control the media and force annual renewal of licences to induce censorship; a new bill to stop the media providing coverage to the government’s political opponents facing controversial trials or given convictions, ban on opposition party leaderships’ interviews on TV and live coverage of all opposition press conferences, and preventing criticism of friendly states.
Some ministers throughout 2019 routinely tweeted against the media. One minister slapped a journalist in public, another made anti-Hindu comments and was removed from office, only to be restored within months. Press advice to censor news became routine.
The relentless intimidation of media in Pakistan in 2019 included several attacks on media houses by mysterious groups that raised slogans in favour of the government and the military; seven journalists murdered for their work; withholding of government advertising dues; of criminal cases against over a dozen journalists for their private social media postings under the controversial cyber crime law.
The relentless intimidation of media in Pakistan in 2019 included several attacks on media houses by mysterious groups that raised slogans in favour of the government and the military; seven journalists murdered for their work; withholding of government advertising dues; of media running into billions of rupees that forced major downsizing and loss of over 3,000 jobs of journalists; growing intolerance of the security establishment of even mild criticism; criminal cases against over a dozen journalists for their private social media postings under the controversial cybercrime law; and a ban on distribution of newspapers and TV channels deemed ‘unpatriotic’ in cantonment areas and other residential societies controlled by the security establishment.
For journalists just doing their jobs of being guardians of public interest it has been really tough out there being unhappy with the government in Pakistan in 2019! The year was annus horribilis for the media – making the current era one of the worst ever in Pakistan’s history to exercise free speech even within the constitutional limits on freedom of expression as guaranteed under Article 19 (dealing with freedom of expression) and Article 19-A (dealing with right to information).
This was the year of a growing hush in Pakistan wherein both the Deep State and government dropped all pretensions of tolerating criticism of their controversial scorched-earth policies and inept governance. This will not be without consequences for the body politic. With the government wantonly ratcheting up pressure on free speech, it appears that procedural censorship is being imposed on Pakistan aimed at re-drawing the very freedom of expression and right to information landscapes of the country.
Pakistan’s pluralistic constitutional foundations are under threat and the country’s declared democratic aspirations are being throttled. The silencing of civil society, the gagging of media and the censorship of political leadership strike at the very democratic project of Pakistan. The last time this happened, the country broke up into two in 1971. That lesson is clearly lost in the mists of time.
If this continues into 2020, the biggest consequence will be a shift away for Pakistan from democracy to authoritarianism, a process already far advanced, which may make it difficult to hold state actors accountable on policies that in the past have resulted in loss of hundreds of thousands of lives and displacement of tens of millions of people in the region and the country.
The social and economic costs of this will be massive, as they have been in the past. This notwithstanding the media story of the year – the death sentence for former dictator Musharraf by a special court. While the verdict constitutes a re-balancing of the power equation, it is expected to generate a new cycle of pressure on the media in 2020 to blunt media and political narratives in support of the judicial courage.
A democratic Pakistan cannot exist without free media because it is a multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-linguist, multi-religious and multi-cultural state wherein all these wondrous pluralisms want their voices to be heard and want direct and better engagement between the citizens and the State. Silencing the media will snuff out the voices.
A citizenry able to express itself and reaching out to the government only ends up empowering the state. Freedom of expression and right to information are guaranteed in the constitution as fundamental rights. This is the big challenge handed by 2019 to 2020, so to speak.
There is a need to halt and reverse the wanton climate of censorship engendered in 2019 to foster greater pluralisms and engagement between the citizen and state to strengthen democracy in 2020. A closed Pakistan uneasy with itself and with no way to express itself, is a recipe for disaster. An open, democratic and accountable Pakistan is better for itself, for the region and for the world.
Farah Zia, Director, HRCP
While it is often presumed that an external hand is responsible for the shrinking civic spaces, is the media ready to introspect? Freedom of press is not only about the right of journalists to report and express themselves freely, it is equally about the right of the people to know. That is why freedom of expression and press are considered a basic human right, drawn from the universal declaration of human rights. Censorship may not be anything new but the media’s capacity to withstand it is certainly more affected. The possibility offered through social media is thwarted in the form of fake news and paid online trolls. Media houses are structured in a way that they are not too keen to report, and are too ready to serve the vested interests in order to survive and reap profits as an industry. There is a disconnect between working journalists, editors and proprietors. Journalists’ unions are divided and there is no consensus code of conduct for newer mediums. It is for the media houses to join hands and restore professionalism to ensure their freedoms. They must partner with human rights organisations to take the cases of violations to the outside world. If the state knows it needs to squeeze the media houses financially to get what it wants, the outside world must exert its pressure financially too.
Farah Zia is the director of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, she tweets at @farahziaa
— Mazhar Abbas, senior journalist
Pressure from the ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ forces has continued in different forms. Journalists and media workers faced the worst financial crisis this year with a record number losing jobs, and the ones employed not getting salaries regularly – there have been delays for months. So, the recent move by major media stakeholders to form a Joint Action Committee, designed to meet the challenges they are faced with, is a positive development.
Never in one year have some 3000 media workers faced retrenchment, some channels, stations, and outlets have faced closure. I doubt that a mere cut in the government advertisements and reduction on rates, or non-payment of dues could have been the only reason. It was one of the prime reasons cited but neither the government nor media owners have come out with a workable solution.
Successive governments have always used advertising as a tool to develop and further a ‘good vs bad media’ binary. Prime Minister Imran Khan has taken a ‘u-turn’ here too. Before 2018 elections, he had not only promised to help ensure freedom and independence of the media but also said that he would make the state-run PTV, Radio Pakistan and APP autonomous. He had even been critical of the use of government advertising as tool. Now, what has his government done in 2019?
Recently I witnessed one of the most horrible scenes of my life – a journalist begging near Zainab Market in Karachi. Tearfully, he said, “Mazhar Sahib, I’m sorry but I’m left with no other option. I have to take some money home. My newspaper has not paid me for the last six months.”
Dozens of journalists faced cases and inquiries from FIA, under PECA, 2016, a few of them were also arrested to be freed later because of lack of evidence.
In short, Pakistani media is passing through one of the most difficult periods of its existence. For the first time the future looks bleak, even if mainstream media pulls through, not because of challenges from digital media but because some people simply don’t like the ‘voice of dissent.’ Without dissent there is no free and independent journalism.
The choice is yours.
The writer is a senior columnist and analyst of Geo, The News and Jang. Twitter: @MazharAbbasGEO