Silencing Dissent: Pakistan's Press Freedom Under Siege

Freedom Network's report noted with great concern that four journalists were killed in the period under review. Separately, a report by Reporters Without Borders showed that Pakistan dropped two spots from 150 to 152 on its global press freedom rankings

Silencing Dissent: Pakistan's Press Freedom Under Siege

Reduced tolerance for online dissent, shutting down mobile networks on election day, throttling of internet access, forced suspension of social media platforms, attacks and harassment of journalists and bloggers, including the murder of four journalists, significantly eroded the parameters of general free speech and dissent in Pakistan over the past 12 months while enhancing the risks for media freedoms.

The annual Pakistan Freedom of Expression and Media Report 2024, produced by the civil liberties group Freedom Network issued ahead of the World Press Freedom Day on May 3.

Concurrently, a report by Reporters Without Borders showed that Pakistan dropped two spots from 150 to 152 on its global press freedom rankings.

Titled "Erosion of free speech: The silencing of citizens, political parties and media," Freedom Network's report said it covered the period from May 2023 to April 2024.

"Freedom of expression loses its meaning if citizens and their representatives in political parties cannot express themselves freely and curbs on media and online civic spaces negate constitutional guarantees," said Iqbal Khattak, the executive director of Freedom Network, upon the launch of the report. Adnan Rehmat authored the report.

The report noted with great concern that four journalists were killed in the period under review – two each in Sindh and Punjab. Moreover, the report documented a total of 104 cases where journalists and other media practitioners found their ability to express curbed, such as murders, physical and online attacks, injuries, kidnapping, threats and legal cases.

Freedom Network added that acute political polarisation, governance, and economic instability saw three governments change hands in Pakistan between May 2023 and April 2024. 

The report underlined that "through their actions, all three ruling dispensations seemed to have evolved an alarming consensus among its most powerful political and state figures to lower their threshold of tolerance to freedom of expression, particularly online dissent.”

The report noted that a pattern of crackdowns in the past year had emerged that saw dozens of journalists and bloggers slapped with legal notices, some being arrested, and others attacked and aggressively intimidated. 

"Political workers also came in the dragnet. All this transpired against a backdrop of warnings of actions by high officials, including top government functionaries, followed by regular targeting of online expression."

The report said that apart from state-driven intimidation, predatory actions by some non-state actors saw over 200 journalists, bloggers and other online information practitioners targeted by way of over 70 legal notices served to them.

"Many came consequent to a 'joint investigation team' of various government departments tasked with identifying persons allegedly running a smear campaign against some judges, although the chief justice later said he was not a complainant and that the judiciary was being used to target free expression aimed at others," it said. The most prominent case in this regard was the 20-day incarceration of Islamabad-based journalist and YouTuber Asad Ali Toor.

The report also noted major failures of key state actions and targeting of other journalists and free speech practitioners by non-state actors that reversed the freedom of expression dial in Pakistan in the period under review. It included a near-universal suspension across the country of mobile phone services on February 8, 2024 – the day when over 125 million registered voters had to elect national and provincial legislatures. The curtailment of access to information and freedom of expression also included frequent, forced network shutdowns and prolonged suspensions of social media platforms — the suspension of the social media platform 'X' (formerly known as Twitter) continues since it was first shut down on election day.

The report also expresses concern at renewed government attempts to legislate how people access internet platforms in the coming weeks and what they can express about them. In this regard, the federal cabinet led by Shehbaz Sharif approved in July 2023 the E-Safety Bill and Personal Data Protection Bill. The bills aim to establish separate authorities with powers to penalise both 'posters of content' on social media platforms and 'hosters of content – tech corporations' for any allegedly 'anti-state content' online, as well as force global firms like Google, Facebook, X and YouTube to open offices in Pakistan and make available data on Pakistani users to the authorities on demand. No public consultations have been done on the bills.

"Adverse policy actions such the state's intent to weaponise regulations of online content, particularly social media platforms, including journalistic and social expression will not only institutionalise coercive censorship but also put other Pakistan's rising digital economy in peril," the report warned.

The report also documented "small victories" in defence of freedom of expression and media freedoms in the period under review. Several actions by the courts helped journalists and citizens exercise their right to free speech. These included: The Supreme Court of Pakistan, acting in January 2024 on a joint petition filed by the associations of journalists that a report from the Supreme Court and the Islamabad High Court had ordered the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to suspend notices issued to journalists. The Lahore High Court, in November 2023, quashed a case against a journalist charged with hate speech and sedition. In February and April 2024, the Sindh High Court and Islamabad High Court, respectively, ordered the federal government to lift the block imposed on social media platform 'X' and to allow the public to use it freely.

Pakistan's global ranking slips

Meanwhile, in the annual World Press Freedom Index issued by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Pakistan slipped two spots from 150 in 2023 to 152 in 2024.

Pakistan was sandwiched between Cambodia (ranked 151) and Laos (ranked 153). By comparison, India improved its ranking from 161 to 159.

The RSF report noted that journalism worldwide was under growing political pressure, threatened by the very people who should be its guarantors.

RSF noted that its finding was based on the fact that of the five indicators used to compile its ranking, the political indicator had fallen the most during the review period, registering a global average fall of 7.6 points.

"A growing number of governments and political authorities are not fulfilling their role as guarantors of the best possible environment for journalism and for the public's right to reliable, independent, and diverse news and information," RSF said, adding that it sees a worrying decline in support and respect for media autonomy and an increase in pressure from the state or other political actors.

This damning verdict comes as more than half of the world's population, in some of the most powerful countries of the world, go to the polls.

"States and other political forces are playing a decreasing role in protecting press freedom. This disempowerment sometimes goes hand in hand with more hostile actions that undermine the role of journalists or even instrumentalise the media through campaigns of harassment or disinformation. Journalism worthy of that name is, on the contrar," said RSF Editorial Director Anne Bocandé.

RSF noted that the war in Gaza was marked by a record number of violations against journalists and the media since October 2023.

It said that more than 100 Palestinian reporters have been killed by the Israel Defence Forces, including at least 22 who were killed in the course of their work.

Palestine was ranked among the top 10 most at-risk countries for journalists, alongside the likes of Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Myanmar and Iran.

Pakistan was ranked the 11th most at-risk place in the world to do journalism, above the likes of Vietnam, Belarus, China, Saudi Arabia and North Korea. But it was worse than countries such as Russia, Bangladesh, Egypt, Mexico, Nicaragua, Iraq and India.

RSF also expressed concerns over growing disinformation and misinformation in the super-election year.