Under Prime Minister Imran Khan’s PTI government, Pakistani journalists and the media, including print, electronic and social media, are facing many difficulties, threats and restrictions. Seven journalists were killed and 60 booked under the anti-terrorism law in 2019. All copies of Muhammad Hanif’s famous novel “A Case of Exploding Mangoes” Urdu translation were confiscated.
Filmmaker Sarmad Khoosat’s film Zindagi Tamasha’s release was stopped. The government’s hatred of the media can be judged by statements of PM Imran Khan which he gave in Davos. Addressing a breakfast meeting with the Pakistani community on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum, Imran Khan said: “I have never received so much abuse or been hammered by the media as I have in the past one and a half years. Being in the public eye for 40 years, I am used to criticism but this one and a half year has been exceptional. I have had to develop a thick skin. Because I know the dynamics of bad times, I know the first thing to do is to not read the newspapers. Do not, whatever happens, do not watch the evening chat shows.” Imran said he tried to get his cabinet members to do the same but “they watch the chat shows and come shell-shocked in the meetings.”
It is tragic that the PM, who is himself a real beneficiary of the media, does not know that the media is inevitable for the growth and sustainability of democracy. Instead of encouraging the media to perform its duties as a watchdog, Imran Khan is not only criticising it but also advising his cabinet ministers not to read the newspapers and watch TV shows. The advice is against the spirit of democracy because if the government is blind to the problems of the people, it will not be able to solve them. It also shows the hatred of Imran Khan which he is nurturing against the media – the fourth pillar of the state.
Before the statements, PTI Federal Minister Fawad Chaudhry publicly slapped two famous journalists for giving news and views about him in two different incidents without any regret and apology. He justified his deplorable and undemocratic actions by labelling them “bad and corrupt journalists.” Instead of launching complaints against the journalists in the PEMRA and courts, he publicly violated the rule of law by slapping the two journalists. Tragically, no action has been taken against the minister. Imran Khan, a beneficiary of the media, after becoming the PM, has now turned against it. To control the media, Imran Khan’s PTI government is using financial weapons, threats and rebukes through social media teams. The PTI government has stopped giving advertisement to many media houses. Resultantly, many media houses have downsized their staff, which has made many journalists unemployed.
The Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE) report also depicts a grim picture of the media freedom in Pakistan. According to the Pakistan Media Freedom Report 2019, “Although the Article 19 of the Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantee freedom of expression and free media, the media in Pakistan continued to come under strict forms of physical intimidation during the year. Even though there is a specific law on defamation, the government and other actors used the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) and Pakistan Penal Code’s (criminalisation) sections against media practitioners in Pakistan. The cases compiled, the number of victims involved and the sequence of events made a mockery of the freedom of the media and freedom of speech in the country.”
Mentioning the case of journalist Chaudhry Nasrullah, the report says, “The country’s first-ever conviction for possession of banned material has been made as the journalist was awarded five-year imprisonment. According to available data, at least seven journalists were murdered and 15 others injured in 2019 in the line of duty. Five of the seven fallen journalists have been identified as Urooj Iqbal, Mirza Wasim Baig, Mohammad Bilal Khan, Ali Sher Rajpar and Malik Amanullah Khan”.
According to the report, “Mysterious and unidentified actors pose the biggest threat to press freedom. Among the threats to the lives of journalists are non-state actors and outlawed militant groups. The pathetic state of unannounced impunity for those who attack the media can be derived from the fact that not a single killer or attacker of media persons has been brought to justice. According to the World Press Freedom Index, Pakistan ranked 142 out of 180 countries, which gives the indication of how the media in Pakistan was under threat.”
The report says offices of a newspaper came under attack several times in 2019 because some of its stories did not go well with some groups in the country. Angry mobs besieged its offices in Islamabad. In 2019, the PEMRA not only issued notices to TV channels, but also barred some anchorpersons from offering opinions on talk shows. The media was also ordered not to discuss the issue pertaining to the release of PML-N leader Shahbaz Sharif on bail. The TV channels were directed not to cover live telecast of PML-N leader Maryam Nawaz’s press conference. The PEMRA issued notices to 21 TV channels for non-compliance. An interview of former President and PPP Co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari with host Hamid Mir was stopped from being aired shortly after it started on a channel in July 2019.
Many news channels were taken off-air due to the coverage of Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s press conference on the “Azadi March.” A channel was served notices on the complaint of the Prime Minister and the PEMRA imposed a fine of Rs1 million on it. The report also says 60 journalists were booked in 2019 for allegations of extortion, kidnapping for ransom, police encounters, attempted murder, blackmailing, etc. However, the journalists claimed that they were victimised owing to their fair reporting against authorities.
Recently, Azharul Haq Wahid, a jobless journalist from Lahore, fell prey to the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016. Wahid, who was working with a TV channel, was arrested by the FIA in a case of sharing anti-state content on social media. The content of the first information report reads: “It has been learnt during the scrutiny of social media that anti- state and defamatory material against public functionaries and state departments is being uploaded through a Facebook ID in the name of Wahid.” Is it not a ridiculous report written under the PTI government? The FIA has already made such cases against journalists Shahzeb Jilinai, Rizwan Razi, Zafarullah Achakzai and many other social media activists. All the cases have proved futile. But, there is no doubt about it that the government and non-state actors do not like criticism. They take no time to silence dissidents.
However, it goes without saying that no real democracy can grow without a free media and freedom of expression. Imran Khan and his PTI government should learn the truth very quickly that a nation and its media rise and fall together. If they want to turn Pakistan into a real democratic country, they should not impose restrictions on the media and freedom of expression.