Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists in the world. Pakistan ranks at a poor 139th position out of 180 countries in “Reporters without Borders 2018” World Press Freedom Index. The report states that “The Pakistani media are regarded as among the most vibrant in Asia but they are targeted by extremist groups, Islamist organizations and the feared intelligence agencies. Deadly attacks against journalists continue to take place every year.” A 2012 UNESCO report has ranked Pakistan as “the second most dangerous country for journalists the world over after Mexico”. Journalists in Pakistan are threatened by members of separatist movements, religious extremists, militants and security officials. As per South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA): “Terrorism and Islamism are the most dangerous issues for Pakistani journalists to report on.”
It is to the credit of Pakistan media that it has withstood strong challenges in the past with fortitude despite repeated campaign of disinformation, slander and libel, hate and virtual incitement to violence against media houses and persons by the all-powerful establishment. Long spells of undemocratic military rule have witnessed outright threats and violence against the media. However in recent years the situation has turned from bad to worse. The establishment and specially the Army have devised a new approach for dealing with media. The military has used its battle against terrorism as a pretext to pressure the media. It maintains the facade of caretaker civilian rule and refrains from direct censorship. Yet it employs other ways to assault constitutionally guaranteed media freedoms. Newspaper distribution is disrupted; dissenting journalists are attacked and threatened (including sporadic abductions) and media houses are forced to carry out self-censorship.The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in its September 2018 report categorically states that “The climate for press freedom in Pakistan is deteriorating as the country’s powerful army “quietly, but effectively” restricts reporting through “intimidation” and other means”. Today Pakistan is one of the world’s toughest beats for journalists. As per “Independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan,” anyone critical of the state these days is being targeted by security agencies. Some of the recent incidents of media muzzling by the establishment and the non-state actors are given below:-
- Hamid Mir, a popular television host and a fierce critic of the country’s intelligence agencies and military, was severely injured after he was attacked by unidentified gunmen in April 2014. Mir and his brother blamed the army and ISI spy agency for the attacks.
- Distribution of Pakistan’s oldest newspaper, Dawn, was disrupted across most of the country in May 2018, when it published an interview with ousted PM Nawaz Sharif, in which the former premier criticized the army and alleged it was backing militants who carried out the deadly Mumbai attacks in 2008.
- Marvi Sirmed (a fierce critic of extremist groups and the Army) house at Islamabad was ransacked in 2018.
- Taha Siddiqui, (another critic of Army and ISI) was forced to leave Pakistan in January 2018, shortly after gunmen hit, threatened, and tried to kidnap him in broad daylight in Islamabad.
- Geo TV, known for its fiercely independent and critical views of army was forced to go off air in many parts of the country in April 2018 as the channel was taking a pro-Sharif stance in former PM Nawaz Sharif disqualification case.
- The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), a peaceful anti- Army mass movement demanding security for Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtun minority faced coercion, censorship and allegations of promoting foreign agenda from the establishment. Pakistan’s mainstream television channels, media outlets and media houses were put under tremendous pressure from the ISPR and Army to ensure that PTM does not get any media coverage.
- The 2018 general elections in Pakistan witnessed increased Army’s pressure on media to follow its narrative. Mr I A Rehman of the “Human Rights Commission” of Pakistan alleged that “The level of army interference and political engineering is unprecedented and the media too has been silenced by the military through strong arm tactics”.
Imran Khan after becoming the PM promised a free media in “Naya Pakistan”. However the situation on ground has not changed.The establishment or the deep state is out of reach of the government, the Army and ISI continue their strong stranglehold on media. Freedom Network report of 1 May 2018 says that “Between May 1, 2017 to April 1, 2018 at least 157 cases against media freedom were recorded in Pakistan”. Pakistan must address the disturbing trend of impunity and attacks on journalists and free press to shore up this faltering pillar of democracy. For democracy to take strong roots in Pakistan it is essential that the country’s security establishment reviews its policy of restricting media freedom.