Journalists pay heavy price for press freedom

January 10, 2021

Journalist Raza Rumi talks about the state of media freedom in Pakistan

Freedom of the press is becoming an increasingly deadly commitment for South Asian journalists. Although censorship tactics are not new to the region, Pakistan appears to be at the forefront of taking extreme measures, including violence, against journalists.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 61 journalists died in Pakistan between 1992 and 2020. During the same period, 51 journalists were killed in India and Afghanistan each, 22 in Bangladesh, 19 in Sri Lanka, eight in Nepal, and two in the Maldives.

The CPJ database indicates that most of these Pakistani journalists were killed while working on ‘dangerous’ assignments. Others were caught in the crossfire. An overwhelming majority of these worked for newspaper and TV channels. Several were also associated with the internet and social media.

Raza Rumi is one of the Pakistani journalists who narrowly survived an assassination attempt that killed his driver. He currently lives in the United States and leads a multi-media online network. He has written three books on Pakistan, including the recent collection of essays: Being Pakistani: Society, Culture and the Arts. He also teaches journalism at Ithaca College in the New York state.

Talking about freedom of the press in Pakistan, he says, “Journalists have been at the receiving end throughout the history of Pakistan, mainly due to the censorship policies that the state has followed. As an inheritor of the Raj, it views information control as a tool of power as well as the means to keep the hegemony of ruling classes intact.”

According to the CPJ database, 56 of the assassinated journalists worked for Urdu and English newspapers and TV channels across the nation.

The print media journalists represented Karak Times, Akhbar-i-Jahan, Dawn, Osaf, Mashriq, Parcham, Daily Express, Takbir, The News, Daily Pakistan, Intikhab, Shumal, Ummat, The Nation, K2 Times, Daily News, NaiBaat, Azadi, The Frontier Post, Akhbar-i-Khyber and Jang.

The other media workers were representing TV news channels including Sama, ARY, Express TV, Kavish Television Network, Geo, Waqt, Markaz and DM Digital TV, Dunya, Abtak, WASH TV, Royal TV, Khyber TV, Associated Press TV News, City 42 and Aaj TV.

In Rumi‘s opinion, crimes against electronic media and newspaper reporters have been increasing because of the growing militancy in the country. He recalls that the state had been the only source of censorship in the past.

“In recent decades, however, the rise of militias and vigilante groups has made it worse. In addition to the state, non-state actors, sometimes in collusion with their patrons in the state, unleash violence against journalists. Under the current hybrid regime, the need to control the narrative has become even more paramount with more and more voices on social media challenging the official policies,” he elaborates.

Of the journalists who lost their lives, 35 were involved in political reporting, six were crime reporters, six were assigned establishment-related reporting and three government departments. Several others were reporting on human rights, war and corruption.

For Raza Rumi, “In many ways, this is an unprecedented moment. There is firm self-censorship in place in the electronic and print media, but the digital spaces are relatively open. That seems to be the major challenge for the state now. They enacted a draconian PECA law in 2017, and have recently enacted rules without consultation and parliamentary input. This will lead to more gagging and violence.”

“In recent decades the rise of militias and vigilante groups has made it worse. In addition to the state, non-state actors sometimes, in collusion with their patrons in the state, unleash violence against journalists. Under the current hybrid regime, the need to control the narrative has become paramount with more and more voices on social media challenging the official policies.

Consequently, several social media activists have been arrested for their ‘anti-state’ posts. As Raza Rumi explains, “The most glaring example is the way four bloggers were picked up in 2017 and kept in detention for months before being sent home. Some of them left Pakistan in the following weeks.”

Several unions and numerous press clubs in the country try to protect journalists and media workers. Besides passing resolutions and organising protest rallies, are these organisations taking some practical steps to protect journalists?

The government has also tried to gag opposition voices on the electronic media. In October last year, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) banned the broadcast of speeches, interviews and public addresses by absconders and proclaimed offenders. The development came a few hours after former prime minister Nawaz Sharif criticized the government in his second address to the PML-N’s central working committee meeting, which was aired on numerous news channels in Pakistan. Later on, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and 16 journalists, anchorpersons and media analysts filed a petition in the Islamabad High Court (IHC) against the prohibition order. The petitioners include IA Rehman, Mohammad Ziauddin, Saleem Safi, Zahid Hussain, Asma Shirazi, Syed Ejaz Haider, Munizae Jahangir, Ghazi Salahuddin, Zubeida Mustafa, Najam Sethi, Nasim Zehra, Amber Rahim Shamsi, Gharida Farooqi, Mehmal Sarfraz and Mansoor Ali Khan.

Expressing pessimism on disunity among journalists’ organisations, Raza has mixed feelings about the future of media freedoms in Pakistan: “With dozens dead and hundreds fired by media outlets, the journalist bodies are disunited to put up a joint front. In fact, they have been divided and made ineffective. Still, a number of media persons are pushing the envelope and defying the current environment of self-censorship.”

Since independence, Pakistani media has been under pressure during dictatorships and civil governments. However, research indicates that censorship and restrictions on media have been more violent and direct during dictatorships.

Tactics of pressures and modes of censorship have also drastically changed in recent years. Media are usually free to analyse social, cultural, and economic issues and criticise civil governments and political leaders. Criticism on the establishment directly or indirectly is a no-go area.

The state religion and religious leaders’ criticism is also not tolerated by militant groups, religious organizations and clerics. On the other hand, criticism of minority religions and their followers have become an accepted norm.

The nature of censorship also varies by the type of media outlets and their reach to the population at large. As print media and TV channels in Urdu and regional languages have a broader audience, they are severely scrutinized than the English newspapers and magazines.

As a result of economic pressures and violence, journalists and media organisations have created unwritten rules on what to cover. These self-censorship parameters dangerously hamper the free flow of information and healthy debates on significant issues of society.

Against this backdrop, it appears that journalists and media workers are paying a heavy price for their commitment to freedom of the press in the country. With hopes for freedom to write fading, the fourth pillar of democracy appears to be in a bad shape in Pakistan.

The author is co-editor of a recently published book, From Terrorism to Television: Dynamics of Media, State and Society in Pakistan (Routledge, 2020). He is an academic scholar and freelance writer based in   the United States.

Journalists pay heavy price for press freedom in Pakistan