FeaturedVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 19

Shrinking space for press freedom

World Press Freedom Day is observed all over the world on May 3 every year. The day was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in December 1993, following the recommendation of UNESCO’s General Conference. Since then the day is celebrated every year through special seminars and conferences to highlight its significance.

The day is celebrated to raise awareness of the importance of freedom of the press. The day also allows media professionals to discuss issues of press freedom and professional ethics. It is also a day of remembrance for journalists who have lost their lives in the pursuit of their duties. World Press Freedom Day also acts as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom.

The theme of World Press Freedom Day 2020 is “Journalism without Fear or Favour” and the sub-themes for the year are: safety of journalists and media workers, independent and professional journalism, free from political and commercial influence and gender equality in all aspects of the media.

In a statement on Press Freedom Day, the Pakistan Press Foundation said that the media in Pakistan is operating under a new and challenging environment as the spread of Covid-19 has created an alarming situation for it. According to its report, most media organisations as well as the government have neither ensured the effective implementation of safety protocols nor the timely provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) to media workers.

In this context, the report has called on Pakistan’s media associations, including the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA), All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) and Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE), to develop detailed workable guidelines for all media workers on how to cover the coronavirus safely and monitor their implementation by their member organisations. The foundation has also urged the government to provide support to the media in ensuring the safety of the workers.

It may be added here that at least 38 cases of coronavirus infection have been confirmed among media workers, but the actual figures could be much higher as only a small number of journalists have been tested for the virus.

In addition to the protection of media workers, the coronavirus has also created new challenges for the media regarding how best to cover the pandemic. The most important job at present is to ensure the provision of accurate information in the face of fake news circulating on social media platforms as well as to analyse the data on virus infections and testing provided by the government and other sources.

The foundation has emphasised on the government to recognise the need for free flow of information, respect the right to freedom of expression and to release all journalists who have been arrested recently on flimsy grounds. The PPF report has rightly pointed out that year 2019-20 has seen increasing pressure on the freedom of expression in the country. It is true that during the year under review journalists in Pakistan worked under severe stress with little accountability of those who continue to crimp the space for journalists by placing financial constraints on media outlets as a pressure tactic. In some cases, pressmen have also come under physical attacks, abducted and harassed. In recent years, threats to journalists and their harassment were extended to social media platforms as well. Smear campaigns are common on Facebook and Twitter and no notice is taken of cases of cyber threats and blackmail.

While Prime Minister Imran Khan in a recent statement dismissed reports of curbs on press freedom in Pakistan as a “joke”, experts say that the policies and proposals of the present government, including media courts and social media regulations, indicate a trend in the wrong direction. There have been constant direct and indirect attempts by government bodies to control the media.

According to the PPF, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), on numerous instances, provided “advice” on what the media can cover and what could be unacceptable. During this time period, on numerous occasions, television channels or shows have been taken off-air during interviews with opposition politicians.

In the meantime, there have been proposals to regulate social media content. It led various social media companies threatening to leave Pakistan and creating a grim picture for the opportunity for free expression online. So, the authorities had to hold their hand. In a situation where journalists are the target of government and non-government bodies and are often threatened for their work — both verbally and physically — it becomes increasingly difficult for them to pursue their professional duties.

A major issue that has come to the fore over the last two years is increasing joblessness among journalists. On the flimsy grounds of declining advertisement revenue, a large number of working journalists have been laid off without paying any compensation. All major media groups and TV channels are guilty of it. The media owners’ plea of dwindling incomes is patently false as all major media owners have become billionaires due to the hard work put in by their employees. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists should take up the case of sacked journalists with the government on an urgent basis.