Media freedoms in Pakistan remained vulnerable to regulatory pressures, threats and intimidation
In many ways 2021 was a landmark year for the media in Pakistan – highlighted by a continued erosion in practice of the constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and access to information, worsening of key indicators of the digital media domain but also small victories in the shape of not one but two laws on safety of journalists and a growing trend of public interest journalism by indie digital media, a mission all but given up by legacy media.
The state of digital media freedoms in Pakistan remained weak and vulnerable to regulatory pressures and threats against online expression during 2021 despite limited gains in internet access and use. This intimidation and censorship regime has become something of a signature legacy for the Imran Khan government, which even at the best of times has demonstrated a proclivity to disdain and manipulate the media into submission.
Media freedoms were threatened by the government’s move to enforce controversial and restrictive rules to regulate journalism, and the information ministry’s pet obsession to form a centralised media regulatory body in the shape of the proposed Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA). If approved, it proposes to do away with all existing media-related laws and conduct licensing, registration and content regulation of all types of media, including print, television, radio, digital and social media – and even cinema and publication of books.
Drafts of the proposal unofficially leaked by the information ministry and criticised and opposed bitterly in the standing committees on information of the National Assembly and Senate also proposed the establishment of a tribunal to try violations of the proposed restrictions including cancellation of licences and jail terms and fines for journalists.
Alarm and anger over the proposed PMDA did not remain restricted to media practitioners’ community but spread to political parties and civil societies that correctly saw the proposal to be the most draconian tool envisaged yet in Pakistan’s history to control the media as it transitions deeply into a real-time, 24/7 digital media and information milieu.
At various opposition meetings and other multi-party conferences, politicians of all hues disparaged the proposed PMDA and successfully thwarted repeated government attempts for it to pass muster at the parliamentary committees. Bilawal Bhutto and Maryam Nawaz dubbed the PMDA as “media martial law” while the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists declared it the proposed “new headquarters of censorship”.
The legal community and various civil society platforms held exclusive conferences to denounce the biggest attempt since Gen Ziaul Haq to control the media to the point of strangulation into silence. International media watchdogs including Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) denounced the proposed PMDA and called for unconditional withdrawal of the proposed merger of all media regulators as it would severely undermine freedom of expression and independent journalism by serving as a “one-window operation” to control public-interest narratives. By the end of the year, Fawad Chaudhry’s ministry had beaten a retreat on its insidiously offensive and universally opposed proposal.
The proposed PMDA wasn’t the sole reason for Pakistan’s growing enemy-of-the-media image in 2021. In October, the information technology and telecom ministry issued the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content regulations that gave the authorities the right to control and censor any message posted on social media platforms. The annual Press Freedom Index of RSF in 2021 retained Pakistan on the 145th position in a list of 180 countries. In late summer, the RSF issued its annual list of global press freedom predators. It named Prime Minister Imran Khan as one of them for the year 2021 for “censoring and intimidating journalists who dare not toe the government’s line”. Amnesty International said Pakistani media faced a “structural attack” by authorities including “applying pressure on independent media houses, their advertisers, their owners and individual journalists to toe the line and not hold power to account. Dissent is being consistently treated like a crime.”
Imran Khan was also in the news when, as prime minister, he refused to respond to a request filed under the federal law on right to information about a super-expensive gift he had reportedly received from a Gulf dignitary and its fate. The reporter who filed for information has been facing harassment and intimidation since.
Over the course of 2021, Pakistani journalists who actively connected with news audiences on social media during the pandemic continued to face abuse, trolling, harassment and coordinated online campaigns to malign and discredit their journalism. Women journalists were particularly targetted to which they responded with joint statements calling out the perpetrators of the vicious online attacks against them, including followers of the ruling party.
Some glimmer of hope for the media in 2021 came through the passage of the Sindh Protection of Journalists and Other Media Practitioners Act by the Sindh government in August, and the Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Act by the federal government in November. These are the first laws of the kind in the world and are largely based on best practices and guidelines of the UN Plan of Action on Safety of Journalists and Issues of Impunity issued by UNESCO in 2012 and endorsed by Pakistan in 2013.
Both these laws should, at least in theory, help speed up official efforts at combating impunity with regard to crimes against journalists. With over 150 journalists killed in Pakistan since 2000, not even a single murderer has seen punishment. The federal law, however, seems to have insidiously undermined its own professed mandate of protection of journalists, through the proviso of Section 6, to prequalify for protection after proving that any threats emanating from their work was through good faith journalism. It is akin to promising justice for rape victims only if they can prove they did not provoke the rape in the first place. This is a blemish that will have to be removed from the statute books.
The other plus for the media landscape is how a new ecosystem of independent, non-legacy journalism start-ups is changing the face of media in Pakistan through a missionary focus on public-interest journalism, which has been all but abandoned by legacy media such as newspapers and television media in the face of corporate interests and state intimidation.
A bevy of online-only news platforms, such as those represented in the Digital Media Alliance of Pakistan (DigiMAP), are bringing stories from Pakistan’s mainstream and margins alike, and bringing forth voices and perspectives from women, minorities and segments of the rural heartland that are either deliberately ignored or unheard on TV and print. It is these digital media platforms that will come to represent the broad canvas of diversities and pluralism of Pakistan that the state wants to repress through its strangulation of the legacy media.
The writer is a political analyst and media development specialist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org