Pakistani journalists continue to be targeted

Journalism has become a fatal profession

On December 8, unidentified attackers killed journalist Qais Javed in Dera Ismail Khan. According to the police, the attackers were tailing the journalist. Qais was a former employee of Geo News, where he had worked as a cameraman. No group or individual have taken the responsibility of the attack. Earlier in September, state-run channel PTV’s broadcaster, Shaheena Shaheen, was shot dead in her house in Turbat, Balochistan. Although, police claimed that she was killed after a ‘domestic issue’ journalist bodies have rejected the claim.

In the same month of September, the UN Human Rights Office expressed its concerns over the killing of media personnel in Pakistan. In its statement, the office said it was watching the whole situation, “with increasing concern” numerous cases of incitement to violence— online and offline— against journalists in the country, particularly against women.”

Reacting to the news, Digital Rights Foundation head Nighat Dad said, “The second woman journalist killed in Pakistan in last 10 months. Strongly condemned this cold-blooded murder of Shaheena in a place where we already have dearth of women journalists.”

According to UNESCO data, four journalists have been killed in Pakistan in 2020 alone. The data shows over 60 individuals belonged to the media industry have been killed in the country since 1997. Meanwhile, the data of Global Impunity Index of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) shows that at least 15 journalists have been killed in Pakistan in the last 10 years; and in all cases, no killer has been brought to justice.

The CPJ has ranked Pakistan among the top 12 most dangerous countries for journalists. According to it, three countries, including Pakistan, are where, “corruption, weak institutions, and lack of political will to pursue robust investigations into the killings of journalists are all factors behind impunity.” Furthermore, Pakistan has stayed in the list of the CPJ, along with Philippines, since its start in 2008; however, Philippines has improved its ranking.

Observers suggest that the ground for debate is restricting, permissions are scarce, while some topics are completely off the table. And in some cases, these restrictions are not only by the government or establishment, it is even from the media houses, because they don’t want to go against their favourite politicians, have close affiliation with some political parties or there is issue of cash flow

This does not end here. Another organization Rapporteurs Sans Frontieres (Journalists Without Borders) has ranked Pakistan 145th out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index.

The media boost came in Pakistan, intriguingly according to observers, during military dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf’s regime, and it created a space for journalistic voices, political debates on TV and opinions. During the last decade, the media did enjoy relative freedom as a number of new channels started, which both praised and criticised the government. However, with time the situation started to transform.

Experts say a media gag started to be imposed and the matter got nationwide attention when social media activists and journalists went ‘missing’ in 2017. The activists, including Salman Haider, were reportedly taken by agencies, mainly over ‘criticism of state institutions’ and ‘blasphemy charges’. However, these charges were dropped later, as they remained unproven.

If you go back further, the censorship on media and journalists is dated back to General Ayub’s era, when he blocked the election campaign of Fatimah Jinnah. Then came Zulfiqar Bhutto, who vowed to abolish the National Press Trust (NPT) but never did and imposed media bans. General Zia’s era is considered the worst for media freedom, while Musharraf’s era is deemed a mix of both as he once said that he became victim of his own creation.

Observers maintain that the issue in Pakistan has remained that when politicians are out of power, they fight for ‘free media’, but after coming to power, they cannot tolerate the criticism, and hence implement gags and censorship.

he current government under Prime Minister Imran Khan has also tried to control the media through different steps, including the idea of merging PEMRA and the Press Council, and of controlling the social media through the FIA. Recently, the reports emerged that PTI government is trying to bring a law to ‘limit the role of TV anchors as moderators and restricting their opinions and analysis on different matters’. However, after criticism from politicians, media, journalist bodies, and channels, the government retracted the plan.

Analysts maintain that the present time is among the most difficult for media persons, as the industry is facing economic difficulties, job losses and continuous censorship. Most of the top journalists have established their own YouTube channels, and PEMRA has been trying to control them as well.

Commenting on the censorship under the current government, Muhammad Hanif, a renowned novelist, said: “When you see a blank space in a newspaper where your article should have been, it’s slightly terrifying,.” He further said: “It reminds you of old-fashioned censorship that we had during military dictatorships. Currently, censorship… is the worst we have seen”.

Observers suggest that the ground for debate is restricting, permissions are scarce, while some topics are completely off the table. And in some cases, these restrictions are not only by the government or establishment, it is even from the media houses, because they don’t want to go against their favourite politicians, have close affiliation with some political parties or there is issue of cash flow.

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