EDITORIAL: For the past several years, international media watchdogs have been listing Pakistan among most dangerous countries for media practitioners. Yet there is no sign of improvement. In fact, harassment, assault and murder remain the wages of freedom of expression. In its Media Freedom report, 2020, the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE) presents a grim picture of the media scene, saying at least ten journalists were murdered and several others threatened, kidnapped and tortured on trumped up charges while discharging their professional responsibilities in the last year. The report goes on to speak of verbal and physical harassment by government officials and agencies, and registration of what it terms fake cases against journalists, including that of Jang Group Editor-in-Chief Mir Shakilur Rehman. According to some other reports, such as one by the Freedom Network, political parties, religious groups, criminal gangs, as well as influential individuals also made threats against journalists.
It is a matter of grave concern that all these state and non-state actors feel free to subject media persons to harassment/violence secure in the knowledge that they can do whatever they want without fear of punishment or any disadvantage. No surprise then that the CPNE found it necessary to say that “the legal system of the country has become useless in protecting and providing justice to journalists.” The ‘uselessness’ though has more to do with a lack of will on the part of wielders of power to do the right thing than a weakness of the legal system. In fact, the power elites have demonstrated an insatiable urge to control the media through unsolicited advisories, censorship and other unsavoury tactics.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has acknowledged on more occasions than one that when he was out in the cold independent media had helped him spread his message, and that he is all for media freedom. It may be recalled, however, that during his first US visit as PM, when confronted on his policy towards the media at an interactive event hosted by the US Institute of Peace, he had said: “media in Pakistan is not just free, but sometimes out of control.” The first part of this assertion clearly is questionable and the second one rather dubious. For, in any functioning democracy there is an adversarial relationship between the government and media. As society’s watchdog, the role of the latter is to bring under the spotlight the acts of omission or commission by the former, as well as of private groups and individuals. Whether the government likes it or not it must take criticism in its stride. At the same event, Khan also mentioned that journalists were roughed up under previous governments, and that such incidents won’t be tolerated on his watch. But as the present report and several others show threats, harassment and violence against journalists continue. He needs to walk the talk. He must not lose sight of the fact that journalists in this country have struggled long and hard to win freedom of expression, they are not going to accept any limits on what they need to report or comment on.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2021