Under siege

Four journalists were killed in Pakistan last year

The year 2020 was a very challenging one for Pakistan’s media industry. Prime Minister Imran Khan claimed several times that the media enjoyed more freedom in Pakistan than in any other country. The ground reality looks otherwise. Reports issued by several international media rights watchdogs highlight the grave challenges for Pakistani media industry. These organisations rank Pakistan as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.

Local media played a vital role in Imran Khan’s political success. After winning the 2018 general election, he acknowledged this, saying, “Had it not been for free media and independent journalists, I would not have been in this position. I will never forget what the media have done for me.”

For those who understood this to be a promise to uphold the freedom of the press and protect journalists against their predators, a rude shock was in store. According to The Diplomat, “the current environment is particularly dangerous for journalism” and pronounce the state of media [are] toothless and terrified”. When the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) issued a White Paper on Global Journalism, Pakistan was among the five countries described as most dangerous in the world for practice of journalism.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reports have indicated that 50 journalists worldwide were killed last year in connection with the performance of their duties. Four of these were killed in Pakistan.

The prime minister has also denied a crackdown on media outlets and journalists. However, the Federal Investigation Agency has registered cases against 49 journalists and the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority has directed TV channels not to telecast the speeches of proclaimed offenders (e.g. former prime minister Nawaz Sharif) and banned media coverage of a gang-rape case. The government also banned the sale of journalist Suhail Warraich’s book, Yeh Company Naheen Chalay Gi, apparently on account of its cover which featured a caricature of the prime minister shown sitting on the floor next to the army chief. Journalist Matiullah Jan was abducted from Islamabad and the culprits have not been identified, leave alone prosecuted.

A Freedom Network report published on September 25 states that “The federal cabinet of Prime Minister Imran Khan did not discuss the issue of journalists’ safety and impunity for crimes against media in its first 62 meetings held between September 1, 2018 and January 30, 2020, even though in the same period seven journalists and one blogger were killed, six abducted, 15 slapped with legal cases and a total of 135 violations against media practitioners were documented.”

These examples should suffice those wishing to understand the government’s attitude towards freedom of the press and safety of journalists.

Ahmed Waleed, the 24 News news controller tells TNS: “Instead of consulting media industry representatives to evolve a progressive and productive approach as promised by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf before coming into power, various tactics have been used by the government to control newsrooms and curb media freedom. On several occasions, the administration has pressured newsrooms to compromise their responsibility by denying coverage to government’s critics. This has included the Pakistan Democratic Movement rallies and public gatherings.”

Waleed also says media owners are under pressure to toe the government line which is decreed as ‘pro-Pakistan.’ “This is one of the reasons the posts of news director and editor in some media outlets remain vacant… [Under the circumstances] owners find it more convenient to keep editorial control under their command. This also allows them to readily terminate the services of any journalist to appease the government,” he adds.

The termination of cartoonists Sabir Nazar and Khalid Hussain are well known examples of sackings over caricatures resented by those in the government.

Journalist and author Tahir Malik says the government’s approach represents a clear U-turn from Prime Minister Imran Khan’s commitments on freedom of the press made prior to coming into power. “The government’s policy of squeezing public advertisements has hit the media industry very hard. The decision to hold approximately Rs 10 billion in advertising dues has caused an unbearable financial crunch”, he says.

According to The Diplomat, “The snowball effect has led to downsizing and pay cuts across media houses and closure of publications [including] Herald and TV channels like Waqt News.” The Karachi Union of Journalists estimates that over 3,000 media workers lost their jobs in 2019 alone.

Malik says the media industry cannot suddenly shed its financial dependence on public sector advertising just as the private sector is getting abridged. “Consequently, government comes out as the largest supplier of advertisements in the country making the media financially vulnerable”, he says.

Both Waleed and Malik warn against entertaining high hopes for press freedom in 2021 as a result of a change of approach in the government. However, they say strong political pressure from the PDM might help the media regain a little space.

Journalist Suhail Warraich, however, is more optimistic with regard to media freedom during this year. He says the changing international, regional and domestic circumstances provide reasons for hope.

“The post-Trump world will be different. It will be more democratic, progressive and media friendly. Hopefully, the factors involved in the suppression of media freedom will shrink and we shall alter our ways accordingly”, he tells TNS.

Besides, he says, we have learnt our lessons and want to be smarter in dealing with the media. “Restrictions on freedom of speech and free thinking can never last very long. Thus, we believe that freedom has to follow suppression and we are at the lowest bend of the suppression curve. The media organisations are fighting against a financial crunch. Hopefully most of them will recover soon. The chains around freedom of the press are likely to fall soon”, he adds.

The author is a staff member. He can be reached at warraichshehryar@gmail.com

Under siege: Four journalists were killed in Pakistan in 2020