IT says much about the quality of democracy in a country when media persons cannot do their job without fearing for their safety. Even more so when there are two laws one on the federal and another on the provincial level that are supposed to protect those belonging to this profession. Today, on World Press Freedom Day, there is little for journalists in Pakistan to celebrate. The right to free speech, which underpins their profession, continues to be imperilled and the landscape is evolving in new and disturbing ways. The Freedom Network, an award-winning independent national media watchdog, documented no less than 140 cases of attacks and violations against journalists and other media professionals between May 2022 and March 2023. As its latest report says, this amounts to `a staggering two-thirds increase in the number of violations in the preceding year, when the number of cases was 86`. Five media professionals were killed and unsuccessful attempts were made on the lives of 10 others. Women journalists, as always, continued to be the target of vile, sexualised attacks on social media.
The nature and source of the threats have also registered a significant change and reflect the highly polarised atmosphere in the country. Of all the violations against journalists, assault was the most common at 36pc, with 22 out of the 51 cases in this category resulting in injuries. In the previous corresponding period, assaults numbered 7pc of the total violations. Another finding of note is that although state actors continue to be among the main assailants of press freedom in the period under review, political parties narrowly beat them to the top spot. In 21pc of the total cases, victims or their families pointed the finger at political parties; last year the figure was 4pc. This points to a precipitous degradation in the quality of public discourse and growing intolerance for differing political opinions. Media persons are getting caught in the middle. With 40pc of the violations, Islamabad remains the riskiest place to be a journalist.
Punjab, the scene of particularly ugly government-opposition clashes, comes in second with 25pc of the violations; last year, the province was in third place with 13pc. In a country where the right to inform and be informed has never been accepted in its true spirit, worse times may lie ahead for the beleaguered media.