Journalism Under Siege: Censorship And Control In Pakistan

Journalism Under Siege: Censorship And Control In Pakistan
The world of journalism is in turmoil, as the battle for truth and transparency rages on. In an era of fake news, propaganda, and misinformation, the Fourth Estate is the only thing standing between the public and the forces of manipulation and deception. From uncovering corruption to holding those in power accountable, journalism is the beating heart of democracy. But with the rise of propaganda and political pressure, can we still trust the news? It's time to take a closer look at the state of journalism today and why we need it more than ever.

Journalism has always been a force to be reckoned with. From the days of the penny press to the modern era of digital media, journalists have been on the front lines of history, reporting on the events that shape our world. Despite its importance, journalism is facing unprecedented challenges today. Political pressure, financial constraints, and the proliferation of fake news and propaganda are all threatening the integrity of the news media. Likewise, journalists in Pakistan face a perilous journey as they pursue their careers. Their organizations often fail to provide adequate security and incentives, leaving them vulnerable to assassination, torture, and physical assault.

Shockingly, Pakistan was ranked as the 4th most dangerous country for journalists worldwide. Despite the high risks involved, journalists remain committed to their duty as the fourth pillar of democracy, often working in difficult and hostile environments. Two thousand journalists have experienced harassment, kidnapping, arrest, detention, assault, and injury since January 2000. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, Civic Action Resources and Freedom Network recorded 125 cases every year for 16 years. An estimate says 130 journalists were killed in Pakistan since 1947, and over a 100 since 2000. At least 86 cases of attacks and violations against media and its practitioners, including journalists, took place in Pakistan over the course of one year between May 2021 and April 2022. This is an increase by over 40% from the 91 cases of violations documented in the preceding year (May 2019-April 2020).

The top three categories of violations against the journalists in Pakistan in the period under review included 27 legal cases filed against them (18%), 26 verbal threats of murder or other dire consequences (17%), and at least 25 cases of arrests or detention of journalists by law enforcement agencies (16%). Overall, Islamabad emerged as the riskiest and most dangerous place to practice journalism in Pakistan in the period under review with 34% of the violations (51 out of total 148 cases) recorded in the federal capital. Sindh was the second worst with 26% of the violations (38 cases) and Punjab the third most dangerous with 20% (29 cases). These were followed by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) with 9% (13 cases) and Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK) with 6% (9 cases) and Baluchistan with 5% (8 cases). No violations were documented from Gilgit Baltistan (GB). The "State" popped up as the biggest threat actor against targeting media in Pakistan in a whopping 46% of the 148 documented cases of violations against media practitioners.

States use corporate influence, government pressure, threat, and political control to hinder media freedom to act as a fourth pillar. A recent example of crimes against journalists is brutal killing of Pakistan’s renowned Investigative Journalist, Arshad Sharif, in Kenya. To mention, Sharif fled Pakistan due to sedition charges against him for criticizing state institutions and “abetting mutiny” within the military. “Sharif’s death has robbed the media fraternity globally of a dedicated and forthright journalist,” the Foreign Press Association (FPA) Africa said in a statement.

Apart from that, Pakistani news and current affairs channel ARY News has had its license suspended for broadcasting clips of former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Later on, the suspension orders were withdrawn and license was restored by the Pakistani authorities due to severe backlash from the public and international media community as well. Such actions undermine public trust in the government's commitment to uphold the principles of a free and independent media.

Journalists are often killed due to their work in exposing the truth and uncovering sensitive information about powerful individuals and institutions. They can become targets for retribution by those who feel threatened or embarrassed by their reporting, including corrupt officials, criminal organizations, and extremist groups. In some cases, journalists are killed as a warning to others not to report on certain topics or to discourage free and independent journalism. Additionally, in areas of conflict or political instability, journalists can become caught in the crossfire or deliberately targeted by armed groups seeking to control the narrative. All of these factors contribute to the high risk that journalists face in carrying out their important work, and it is essential that governments and societies take steps to protect their safety and ensure that their voices are not silenced.

Every year, we observe the “International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists” on November 2. It’s a day to remember journalists killed while performing their jobs and the impunity of such murders in many countries. According to Freedom Network, the impunity enjoyed by the killers of journalists in Pakistan is one of the highest in the world. Let us look at the bigger picture. A total of 32 FIRs were registered for the murder of 33 journalists during the period 2013-19, of which the police could file the charge sheet in only 20 cases or in 60% of cases. Out of 33 cases, the courts declared only 20 cases fit for trial (60%) of which prosecution and trial were completed in only six cases only 18%. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says “impunity” in the cases of murdered journalists’ remains “firmly entrenched” in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, and 10 other countries across the world.

In a nutshell, when so many peers have been forced into early graves for no bigger crime than hunting down the truth, that too for the benefit of others, it is only natural for eager, upcoming journalists to lose hope and take their talents elsewhere. But journalism cannot be stifled in this manner. Despite the challenges, the world of journalism is not dead yet. It remains an essential part of our collective cultural and political heritage.

The government needs to take concrete steps to ensure the safety and protection of journalists, including setting up a journalist protection fund and providing security to journalists who are covering sensitive issues. In the same vein, independent media outlets also need to be supported, as they provide a crucial check on power and contribute to a healthy democracy.

Ultimately, the future of journalism depends on our collective commitment to the principles of truth, transparency, and accountability. By supporting quality journalism and demanding more from our media, we can help to ensure that the Fourth Estate remains a vital and indispensable part of our democracy. If this is not done as we are seeing in practice, the country will suffer dire consequences.