It is aptly said that a press and its press rise and fall together. It can also be said that the press and democracy go hand in hand.
Without the freedom of expression and journalism, there is no democracy. Democracy runs smoothly and successfully under a watchful eye of free and responsible journalism. The logo of the Washington Post “democracy dies in darkness” holds true as without awareness, education, guidance, entertainment, business activities, exposure of negligence, crime and corruption (journalism performs all these functions), democracy cannot flourish in a country.
In 1762, John Wilkes, a radical journalist and popular politician of the UK, wrote in his weekly newspaper The North Britain that “freedom of expression is the bulwark of all other liberties in Britain.” This quote is still relevant and holds a paramount significance in all democratic nations of the present world. In fact, democracy and freedom of expression are interlinked and mutually indispensable. Even, the Declaration of Universal Human Rights of the United Nation declares freedom of expression as one of the fundamental rights of the people of the world. The Constitution of Pakistan also ensures the freedom of expression and speech for the people. The Article 19 of the Constitution reads: “Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression and there shall be freedom of press, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court (commission of) or incitement to an offence.”
Despite the constitutionally guaranteed right, the entire history of Pakistan shows that journalism is not an easy profession in Pakistan. Almost all civilian and military governments have used draconian laws, like the Press and Publication Ordinance (PPO), 1962, The Newspaper Employees (Conditions of Services) Act, 1973, The Press Council Ordinance, 2002, The Press, Newspaper, News Agencies and Books Registration (PNNBR) Ordinance, 2002, The Defamation Ordinance, 2002, The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority Ordinance, 2002 etc, to enchain the press and media.
It is tragic that many journalists have been pressurised, abducted, tortured and killed to stop them from fulfilling their professional duties. According to the UNESCO observatory of killed journalists, three journalists, Muhammad Bilal Khan, Ali Sher Rajpar and Malik Amanullah Khan have, so far, been killed in 2019. Another journalist, Mureed Abbas, has also been gunned down in July 2019. While, five journalists, Noorul Hassan, Sohail Khan , Abid Hussain, Zeeshan Ashraf Butt and Anjum Munir Raja, were killed in 2018, Haroon Khan, Baksheesh Elahi, Taimur Abbas and Muhammad Jan in 2017, Mehmood Khan, Shehzad Ahmed, Khurram Zaki and Muhammad Umar in 2016, Hafeezur Rehman, Zaman Mehsud, Aftab Alam and Arshad Ali Jaffari in 2015, Ashraf Yusuf, Khalid Khan, Waqas Aziz Khan and Zakir Ali (aka Shan Odhor) in 2014, Ayub Khan Khattak, Haji Abdul Razzak Baloch, Ahmed Ali Joiya, Mehmood Jan Afridi, Malik Mumtaz, Imran Shaikh, Mohammad Iqbal and Saif-ur-Rehman in 2013. Saqib Khan, Rehmatullah Abid, Mushtaq Khand, Abdul Khaliq (aka Abdul Haq Baloch), Abdul Qadir Hajizai, Abdul Razaq Gul, Aurengzeb Tunio, Tariq Kamal, Murtaza Razvi, and Mukarram Khan Aatif were killed in 2012, Faisal Qureshi, Munir Shakar, Nasrullah Afridi, Abdost Rind and Ilyas Nizzar in 2011 and Ashiq Ali Mangi, Ghulam Rasool Birhamani, Ejazul Haq, Faiz Mohammad Khan Sasoli, Muhammad Khan Sasoli, Abdul Wahab, Altaf Chandio, Pervez Khan, Abdul Hameed Hayatan (aka Lala Hameed Baloch), Mujeebur Rehman Saddiqui and Misri Khan Orakzai were killed in 2010. In short, 59 journalists have sacrificed their lives while performing their duties since 2010 in Pakistan.
Critics and opposition parties say the PTI government has taken very hard steps to control the media. It does not like criticism and to silence its critics, the PTI government has slashed its advertising budget to the media, squeezing a key source of revenue for newspapers and TV channels, they claim. Federal Minister for Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry slapped journalist Sami Ibrahim in the face publicly for criticising his politics. The government has decided to block media access to politicians, who are facing corruption charges. An interview of former President Asif Ali Zardari was blocked when it was aired on a private TV channel. The PEMRA issued notices to 21 channels for giving coverage to PML-N leader Maryam Nawaz’s press conference on judge Arshad Malik’s alleged video scandal. The PTI is using its official twitter account to gag press criticism. In the tweets, the party has termed all critics of the government “anti-state.” One tweet reads, “Freedom of Expression is a beauty of Democracy. Expressing Enemy’s stance is Not Freedom of speech but treason against its people.” Omar Sarfaraz Cheema, the PTI’s information secretary, has denied the accusations but he could not deny that tweets were generated from the PTI’s official account.
According to a recent Pakistan Press Foundation (PFF) report, seven journalists and one media organisation owner faced legal actions in 2018, while 48 journalists have been deliberately targeted and murdered for their reports since 2002. Over 171 journalists came under serious attacks while 77 faced minor assaults. Eighteen journalists were arrested while 26 were detained. According to the report, 32 media houses came under attack while residences of 11 journalists were also attacked. The PFF also registered 130 incidents of censorship while the number of total cases monitored by it stands at 699. In the Reporters without Borders 2019 World Press Freedom Index, Pakistan is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries, falling three places from 2018. Freedom Network, a media rights watchdog, has reported that more than 157 attacks on journalists between May 2017 and April 2018 were registered, 55 of them occurred in Islamabad alone.
Journalists launched protests dubbed a “Day of Protests” against government media policies on July 16. They denounced alleged rampant censorship which they say is being imposed upon them from the government, massive layoffs due to budget cuts, and months-long delays in payments of their wages. “The red line has expanded. The government is interfering at every possible level. There are no free talk shows. News and articles are censored. It is comprehensive censorship,” they alleged.
Talking to Aljazeera, a veteran Pakistani journalist claimed today’s censorship was the worst it’s ever been. “Today, we don’t know what will annoy the government. We have to do self-censorship and that is the worst kind of censorship, because it is done out of fear,” he alleged. Websites have been shut down, including the Urdu website of the US State Department’s Voice of America, after it reported on a tribal movement. A radio, affiliated with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has also been shut down. A journalist was charged with treason after he published an interview with Nawaz Sharif in which the former prime minister accused Pakistan state actors of aiding the armed group that carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Authorities are also targeting social media, asking Twitter to suspend accounts and submitting thousands of requests to Facebook to take down pages for a variety of reasons, ranging from criticism of national institutions to propagating hate and insulting Islam.
On the other hand, there are also credible reports that some NGOs, media house owners and journalists receive money from their foreign masters to propagate against Pakistan’s national institutions. Under the Constitution, Pakistan’s national institutions cannot be criticized and ridiculed at any forum. It is also in the Constitutions of all countries of the modern world. People, who cite examples of the freedom of the press in the West, cannot produce a single news report or column, criticizing their national institutions. Many journalists and even media houses in Pakistan are accused of blackmailing and extortion.
Pakistan will have to make defamation laws more effective to ensure responsible journalism. Otherwise, journalists and their targets will continue to collide with each other.