In a country that has consistently made the rankings of the most dangerous places in which to be a journalist, the messenger continues to remain under attack. In the most recent case, the messenger has been targeted for a message he apparently did not even deliver. Last week, the FIA arrested journalist Shahid Aslam, for allegedly providing data for a news report on former COAS Gen Qamar Bajwa and his family’s tax and wealth statements, published on an independent investigative news website in November last year. The story wasn’t published under Aslam’s byline and the reporter who filed the story has denied any claims of Aslam being his source. And yet the government seems intent on punishing the journalist, booking him under the cybercrime laws, and arresting him. Journalists’ organizations have condemned the arrest, the Association of Electronic Media Editors and News Directors (AEMEND) calling it another tactic to gag media freedom. Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) has termed it an attack on press freedom and the Pakistan Press Foundation has called his case the first test of the effectiveness of the Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Act, 2021.
Even more alarmingly, the FIA has been demanding that Shahid Aslam share his passwords with them. This is in direct contravention of the tenets of protection of journalistic sources and the right to privacy. The arrest of Shahid Aslam highlights one painful truth: members of our ruling elite seem to see journalism as a crime, regardless of which political party they belong to, and are all too eager to help the state further draconian measures to curb journalistic freedom and autonomy. The faces of power may change but the trials Pakistani journalists go through remain the same. The PDM had come to power with great promises of ensuring press freedom. We had hoped that, after the regime of censorship unleashed by the previous government, this government would have worked to undo the damage done to journalism and press freedom. Unfortunately, the same old tactics and the same old rules of coercion are being employed. Back when the PML-N had backed the passage of the PECA bill in 2016, critics had warned that it would usher in a new era of clampdowns on free speech. It is unfortunate that, rather than facilitating free media – digital, electronic, and print – every government in power has opted to violate freedom of expression in the country.
The fact is that media freedom in Pakistan has been under assault for a while, and the solidarity needed to resist that has been weakened via a deliberately deployed divide-and-rule strategy. We may think we have come a long way from the days of blacked-out news reports but, as things stand, the journalist continues to be targeted for doing his/her job – and, as in the case of Shahid Aslam, even for someone else’s work.