NationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 29

The perilous state of journalism in Pakistan

Words are a powerful force that can liberate the oppressed and powerless by breaking their chains. They can spark revolutions against tyrannical and corrupt rulers, spread wisdom, awareness, and responsibility, and combat the darkness of ignorance, cruelty, and fear. Words can change thoughts, introduce new ideas, and pave the way for a new world. This is why cruel rulers see words as a threat and why corrupt governments strive to suppress voices of wisdom and control the flow of information.

In Pakistan, the government and state institutions are making every effort to restrict the flow of information by controlling the media—print, electronic, and social—through various laws and stringent measures. They even resort to abducting, torturing, and killing journalists, poets, writers, and activists who speak out against the corruption of the ruling elite and the inept government.

In May, four journalists—Nasrullah Gadani, Mehar Ashfaq Siyal, Muhammad Siddique Mengal, and Kamran Dawar—were killed. Ahmad Farhad, a journalist and revolutionary poet, was abducted. Additionally, the Punjab government has introduced a flawed and draconian defamation law to further control the media.

Nasrullah Gadani, a reporter for the Sindhi-language Awami Awaz newspaper, was attacked by unidentified assailants on a motorbike near Mirpur Mathelo in the Ghotki district. He succumbed to his injuries on May 24. Gadani was known for his bold stance against powerful figures and local feudal lords. Reports indicate that he had received numerous threats due to his professional journalism and reporting. Shortly before the attack, he filmed a viral video of a local influential person’s convoy traveling with a police escort.

The number plate on Gadani’s motorcycle bore the slogan “Bhotar my foot” (feudal under my foot), which quickly gained attention on social media. In the last four years, around 13 journalists have been killed in Sindh. Jan Mohammad Mahar of the Sindhi-language Kawish Television Network was among them. His daytime murder in Sukkur, which remains unsolved, underscores the inadequacy of law enforcement. Similarly, the police have failed to uncover the reasons behind the deaths of Sagheer Ahmad Laar and Ghulam Asghar Khund, who were killed in Khanpur and Khairpur, respectively.

According to the Freedom Network, from May 2023 to March 2024, 33 percent of all media violations in Pakistan occurred in Sindh. This includes assaults, injuries, homicides, abductions, threats, and legal cases. The regional safety commission, established under the Sindh Protection of Journalists and Other Practitioners Act, 2021, remains ineffective due to a lack of funding, staff, and office space.

Journalist Mehar Ashfaq Siyal was gunned down in Punjab, Muhammad Siddique Mengal was killed by a bomb in Balochistan, and Kamran Dawar, a citizen journalist, was shot dead in KP in May. These four killings of journalists highlight the perilous state of journalism in Pakistan. Powerful forces, including political parties, feudal lords, militant groups, and state agencies, consistently hinder journalists from working professionally and effectively.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Pakistan remains one of the world’s most dangerous places for journalists, ranking 152 out of 180 countries. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports that around 64 journalists have been killed since 1992, placing the country 11th on the Global Impunity Index.

The Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE) voiced concerns earlier this month about attempts to stifle press freedom and the rising violence against journalists. The council stated that journalists frequently face kidnapping or arrest, even though Article 19 of the constitution guarantees them the right to free speech.

Despite taking drastic measures to save journalists, the government is using every method to curb media freedom. Recently, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) has restrained the media from reporting on court proceedings. The PEMRA notification has been challenged in the Lahore and Islamabad high courts by two separate representative bodies of journalists. A prominent English newspaper commented on the PEMRA notification, stating: “What seems clear from the wording of the Pemra notification is that the regulator has imperiled the work of courtroom journalists, who dutifully report the statements made by various actors in cases of public interest and national importance. The context cannot be ignored. The Pemra notification has followed on the heels of the apparent ‘grief’ caused to the law minister over remarks recently made by a judge on the role played by intelligence agencies while hearing a missing persons case. Separately, the courts have taken strong exception to ad hominem attacks against judges and a high-profile complaint on interference in judicial affairs and begun proceedings. Additionally, the ‘leaking’ of a picture of jailed former prime minister Imran Khan from his appearance via video link in a court case seems to have greatly irritated the authorities. Have all of these become reasons why it has been decided to keep the public in the dark about what’s happening inside the courtrooms, where the tensions within the state have lately been on full display? The authorities must explain themselves.”

Additionally, the Punjab Assembly passed the Punjab Defamation Bill, 2024, on May 20. The sole purpose of the bill is to protect top state officials from criticism and prevent journalists from performing their duties by exposing corruption and malpractices of public office-bearers. The current PML-N government and other state institutions should understand that information cannot be stopped in this age of communication. They should protect journalists and media freedom if they aim to make Pakistan a truly democratic country.