It would not have been possible with Imran Khan, or his information minister. Media freedom was an anathema to the entire PTI lot; they tried to crush all opposing voices as happens in an authoritarian regime. And so the Islamabad Journalist Safety Forum held on Dec 6, 2022 in Islamabad did not miss Imran Khan much.
It was such a breath of fresh air listening to Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif commit himself to media freedom – and the majority in the audience believed him. The forum that the Freedom Network organized brought together the Pakistan Journalists Safety Forum, Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, Women Journalists Association of Pakistan and the National Press Club Islamabad. The focus of the Islamabad Journalist Safety Forum was ‘10 years of UN Plan of Action on the safety of Journalists and the issue of impunity in Pakistan (2012 – 22)’. It presented a review of the influence and impact the UN Plan has had in Pakistan.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif stole the show by clearly enunciating the commitment of his government to ensure media freedom. He made a valid point that media freedom and democracy reinforce each other and his resolve to support an environment free of intimidation and harassment for journalists sounded genuine. The journalists present at the event expected him to facilitate the implementation of the laws that protect journalists and Shehbaz Sharif did not disappoint on this count by expressing his firm resolve to proactively do so. He particularly appreciated Adnan Rehmat and Hamid Mir of the Journalist Safety Forum for contributing so much to press freedom.
Ambassador of France Nicolas Galey was right in clarifying that freedom of expression could not be termed an obstacle in the working of the government as people have the right to information and media pluralism ensures that. Similar observations were made by Danish Ambassador Jacob Linulf, underscoring the crucial role freedom of expression plays in society while the Ambassador of Norway Per Albert Ilsaas focused more on the quality of journalism that should provide proper information to promote democratic values. He highlighted that Pakistani journalists find themselves compelled to self-censor the content they produce for their media houses.
Hamid Mir delivered one of the best speeches at the Journalist Safety Forum and asked all provincial governments to pass laws for the protection of journalists and notify their safety commissions. The Sindh government has delivered on its promises by enacting such a law but in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab the provincial assemblies have been unable or unwilling to enact them. In his characteristic style he also reprimanded the federal government for not notifying the Journalist Safety Commission though the law in this regard is already in place in Sindh.
Hamid Mir informed the audience that in the federal law the PTI government cunningly inserted Section 6 which acts as a pre-qualifier for journalists before benefitting the law. The journalists had agreed on a draft law that they had developed after much wider consultations. Then mysteriously and suddenly a section appeared in the final bill without any knowledge of the journalists. This was mala fide and in line with the PTI government’s policy to curb media freedom by one pretext or another. He also criticized laws such as the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) that should keep journalists out of the purview of online expression.
And now something about the 10-year review of the UN Action Plan that Adnan Rehmat and Aftab Alam have done under the umbrella of the Institute of Research, Advocacy, and Development (Irada) with assistance from International Media Support (IMS). This is a marvelous document painstakingly produced by the lead researchers on the issues of impunity and journalists safety. It is worth mentioning that the UN Plan of Action has now become a guiding document for civil society organisations (CSOs) and media around the world. Since 2012 it has tried to address the threats to journalists and end the impunity that perpetrators of violence have enjoyed over the past decades.
In Pakistan during the last decade, CSOs such as Freedom Network and Irada that Iqbal Khatak and Aftab Alam are leading, human rights organizations such as the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan that Hina Jilani, Hussain Naqi, Harris Khalique and Farah Zia are spearheading, journalists bodies including the PFUJ led by Afzal Butt, and Women Journalists Association that Myra Imran has been guiding have for both state and government.
This review showed that some good progress has been made in Pakistan. One of the most impressive achievements was the passage of a national and a provincial law on journalists’ safety. The law proposes strong protection for media professionals but the PTI government also tried to defang it by clandestine means. Despite the passage of this law, the impunity in crimes committed against journalists persists in Pakistan. The law is only a partial success as it has had limited impact and the struggle to end impunity must continue. That means Pakistan’s progress in implementing the UN Plan from 2012 to 2022 has shown mixed results.
There have been both failures and successes while challenges to journalists and media professionals have persisted. The review is a groundbreaking work in the world as nowhere to date has any country evaluated its progress in such a comprehensive manner. The review in Pakistan evaluated the performance of four principal duty-bearer groups: civil society, media, state, and the UN and other international organizations. The review team identified five duties for the UN Plan’s implementation: awareness raising, capacity and coalition building, monitoring and reporting, policy making and standard setting.
One of the key findings of the review was that the cumulative index score for the 10-year impact of the UN Plan in Pakistan stood at 1.64 out of a maximum three points. It shows that some significant progress took place in the implementation. They had short- to medium-term implications to improve the safety of journalists and address the issue of impunity. This score was the average of the progress recorded for each of the duties identified by the UN Plan of Action. For awareness raising, some considerable efforts took place mainly by local civil society with national and international organisations including the UN.
For standard setting and policymaking one federal and one provincial law on journalists’ safety was enacted. Sindh took the lead among all provinces in passing the law but the delay in operationalization of the safety commissions envisioned in the two laws set Pakistan back in terms of its progress on standards and policies. No journalist has yet benefitted from either of the two laws, though a full year has passed since the laws became a reality. In terms of monitoring and reporting, civil society led mechanisms to monitor the threats and attacks against journalists achieved some success while the official and legal mechanism remained conspicuous by their absence.
Finally, in capacity and coalition building good contributions have taken place via initiatives from CSOs and professional associations of journalists with support from international organizations. This led to an improved performance in this area. Overall, the review available now online is a good document for all journalists – and Freedom Network and Irada deserve some commendations for their efforts.
The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at: