Is freedom of expression a driver for all other human rights? Unesco and journalists’ rights bodies rightly think it is, making this the 2023 theme for World Press Freedom Day, observed every year on May 3. The Day was first celebrated in 1993, the date chosen to remember the Windhoek Declaration, a statement of press freedom principles by African journalists in Namibia in 1991. For those that have treated journalism – rightly so – as speaking truth to power, it has always been a dangerous profession, riddled with threats to employment, security and even life. From Julian Assange to Rana Ayyub to the many unnamed and uncelebrated journalists working on their stories while also battling authoritarian governments, cynical and powerful corporations, and extremist outfits, today is for all of them and the record numbers of journalists in prison on this 30th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day.
Journalists’ safety and an end to impunity in the killing of journalists, the battle against censorship – including self-censorship – the struggle to report in the face of rising authoritarianism in the world: these are just some of the challenges journalists face in today’s highly mediated world. Add to that the increasing attacks on journalists’ reputations and credibility as well as harassment in the form of coordinated smear campaigns online and we have a world where journalism and journalists
In this context, Pakistan’s media too needs to take stock of the direction in which it is headed. While constitutional protections exist to protect our freedom of speech, these rights are often violated – by the state, by political parties, by individual power figures. The recently published Pakistan Press Freedom Report by the Freedom Network shows that at least 140 cases of threats and attacks against journalists, media organizations, and media professionals were reported between May 2022 and March 2023. Press freedom violations jumped to 140 in 2022-23 from the previous 86 (2021-22). That Pakistan enjoys the privilege of being the first Asian country to have legislation on safety of journalists makes this report even more shocking. Intimidation tactics have long been used to indirectly stop journalists from reporting the truth. In recent years, social media has emerged as a powerful tool for powerful people to run malicious campaigns against journalists – including women journalists – to discredit their work. Such measures help create a society where journalists fear reporting the truth and voluntarily adopt censorship. Apart from cases like threats from unknown people and enforced disappearances, there have been a few incidents where political workers have also used force against journalists. That the Twitter hashtag ‘JournalismIsNotACrime’ has slowly become a permanent topic hardly bodes well for the health of Pakistan’s journalist community. We have plenty of evidence available that shows how powerful people attack journalists. Journalism is an important pillar of democracy, and parties that claim to respect this form of governance hold more responsibility for keeping journalists safe. Denying citizens their right to information automatically taints our democracy at all levels and allows the state to propagate its own narrative without challenge. In the restriction of public debate, there is only one winner: entrenched powers within a state.