Today, on World Press Freedom Day, it is important to remind state, government and political parties that the concept of a free press is essential to the functioning of any democracy. This becomes all the more important in a country where freedom of the media has existed more in the abstract than in reality, particularly in the past few years. The various constitutional protections that exist to protect our freedom of speech are often violated by the state to the extent that over the past few years journalism has had to internalize many restrictions just for self-preservation – effectively becoming a reluctant censor. The safety of journalists in Pakistan has been under threat for long, but for the past few years it has deteriorated to an unprecedented scale. The PTI regime oversaw a project of repression against press freedom almost unprecedented in its scale – harassment of journalists, pressure on media organizations, vilification of individual journalists, including women, abusive remarks about their work on social media and other similar tactics going well beyond even what General Zia had inflicted on the media.
According to the Freedom Network’s annual state of press freedom report (2021–2022) there is a continuing trend of targeting journalists across Pakistan. There was a dramatic escalation of coercion by the PTI government. The six categories of violations that the reports highlights include: legal cases, offline harassment, illegal detentions, assassinations and attempt to murder and verbal threats; these constitute nearly two-thirds of the violations against journalists in Pakistan. Pakistani journalism’s history has been of brave journalists who have displayed independence and courage even in the face of threats and violence. But over the years, media houses have been forced into making the difficult choice between informing the public and keeping their journalists safe.
Harassment of journalists is an old phenomenon but in the age of electronic media it has taken on new proportions. This Press Freedom Day’s theme in fact — Journalism Under Digital Siege — points to the growing threats journalists face in the digital age. While the internet, and particularly the rise of social media, has created new opportunities for journalism to flourish, there was always going to be a counter-response to the openness of the internet and in Pakistan it took the form of the draconian Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act of 2016; the PTI government tried to make the law even worse by passing an ordinance amending some of its provisions; the ordinance and since been declared unconstitutional. Even in its original form, Peca is nothing less than an attempt to curtail dissent on the internet. Added to that is the problem of online vigilantism, increased surveillance regarding journalists, and the sustained online trolling they are subjected to. The most glaring example of how online trolling was used the past three years against journalists was documented in a petition by women journalists in 2020, detailing how their work was hindered due to the unrelenting abuse they faced online, often a result of dog-whistle messaging by government officials.
With a new government in power now, there must be renewed efforts to ensure that the damage done to journalism and press freedom is undone via a process of consultation. We have a history of political and state actors maligning journalists to serve political and institutional agendas. Journalists know that they operate under severe pressure and scrutiny. Their only job is to tell the truth — a role that is central to creating healthy political communities. No matter what side of the political aisle a journalist stands on, it is hoped that this government makes sure it does not resort to targeting journalists and media houses. It is important to remember – and remind those that are in power — that a journalist fearful of doing his/her job translates into a society that is silenced.