The courts in Islamabad frequently welcome a four-year-old petitioner who appears in front of judges in search of his missing father, journalist Mudassar Naru who has been missing since 2018. Given such stark optics, it is hardly surprising to learn that Pakistan is one of the most unsafe places for journalists. According to a recent analysis by Reporters Without Borders, around 1,700 journalists have been killed across the world during the last two decades – an average of over 80 a year. Conflict-ridden Iraq and Syria were the two most dangerous places for journalists during the last 20 years. Pakistan saw the deaths of 93 journalists from 2002 to 2022, making it the fifth most unsafe country for journalists. We have seen far too many cases where journalists were punished for just doing their job. Journalists who have displayed independence and courage in the past have often been threatened and even killed, forcing media houses into making the difficult choice of informing the people and keeping their journalists safe.
Over the years, there has been a decline in violent cases. But the physical violence has been replaced by pressure tactics used to censor journalists. This gives rise to fear and uncertainty, and compels journalists into drawing an ever-shifting invisible red line around the truth and making editorial adjustments accordingly. Such harrowing tales are not limited to Pakistan. In Afghanistan, after the Taliban takeover, many journalists were targeted by the group. The press badge also failed when the Israeli forces shot Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. Journalism may not have officially made it to the list of the most dangerous jobs in the world, but the reality suggests that the day is not far away when this important field will become a dangerous profession.
Add to this the reality that the rise of social media, and the easy dissemination of unverified news, has made it more difficult to distinguish fact from propaganda, and all our toxic mix governments that want to control the news, and it becomes obvious that journalism the world over is under threat. In Pakistan, various governments have used varying tools at their disposal, from withholding advertising to stopping the supply of newsprint to more overt repression tools like threats and violence, to silence independent voices. Journalists in the country now face the unenviable task of carving out a space for journalism amidst fake news, an unsympathetic state, dwindling financial resources and danger on the job.