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May 3, 2021 passed as World Press Freedom Day in relative quietude given the damper on all aspects of life wrought by the Covid pandemic (May Day suffering the same fate this year). Nevertheless, media reports reflected on the state of press freedom in Pakistan, painting in the process a dark and worrying picture.

The International Federation of Journalists has ranked Pakistan the fifth most dangerous country as regards journalism, with 138 media persons being killed between 1990 and 2020. In 2021, three journalists have been killed while one, Absar Alam, has been wounded in a broad daylight attack in a public park in Islamabad. Journalists throughout the country are being targeted with impunity by state and non-state actors.

Freedom Network Pakistan’s latest report on press freedom says 148 instances of attacks and other forms of repression against journalists occurred between May 3, 2020 and April 20, 2021 across the country, an increase of over 40 percent over the 91 such cases in May 2019-April 2020. Amongst the current year’s crop were six assassinations and seven attempted assassinations. With the locus of media shifting incrementally over the years to the federal capital Islamabad, it comes as no surprise that it is rated the most dangerous place for journalists who are critical. Of the 148 cases mentioned above, 51 occurred in Islamabad. Sindh emerged as second most dangerous with 38 cases, complicated further by the nexus between feudal landlords (waderas) and the police, judicial system, administration, etc. A new breed of media-waderas (big landlords who have ventured into the media and ensure the protection of the interests of their class) has sprung up to exacerbate the woes of any journalist attempting to expose the cruelties, exploitation of poor peasants, and vested interest elite capture of state and society by this largely retrogressive class. Punjab is the third worst in this ‘race’, with 29 cases, while Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Balochistan contributed 13, nine and eight cases respectively during the period under review.

Whereas non-state actors such as feudal and tribal leaders and religious extremist organisations pose threats to the life and limb of any critical journalist, it is the national security state and its intelligence limbs that wreak the worst havoc on journalists with the temerity to attempt to speak truth to power (the essential role of a free press as the watchdog and tribune of the people’s interests). Of late, increasingly sophisticated methods have been evolved and implemented to keep such non-malleable journalists (a still important but dwindling tribe) on a leash. Such methods envelop a range of measures to silence such voices through legal cases (27 in the period under review), threats of murder or other dire consequences (26 instances), and at least 25 cases of arrest/detention. These three repressive categories represented 60 percent of the 148 violations of press freedom mentioned above.

The squeezing financially of the media by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government has wrought havoc as far as independent and free media in Pakistan is concerned. Media managements across the board have fired thousands of journalists, slashed the salaries of those still grateful to have saved their jobs, and implemented self-censorship so as not to annoy the powers that be. To add to the repressive panoply, news rooms in both the print and electronic media have acquired ‘handlers’ who are the ultimate arbiters of what can go and what cannot.

The national security state, with the military at its apex, has embarked on what has been dubbed fifth generation warfare to exercise hegemony over the national narrative. To this end, not only has the mainstream media been ‘subjugated’ as described above, any attempt by ‘discarded’ journalists to use social media to get their stories or point of view across runs the risk of organised mass trolling, abuse, and worse. Many such journalists/activists have had to flee the country for fear of the unwanted attentions of the national security state.

From this brief survey of the state of press freedom in Pakistan, it is easy to glean the conclusion that the space for freedom of expression is steadily, if not rapidly, shrinking. There is by now little need to explain the criticality of a free press for a democracy. But a media in chains cannot fulfil its duty as the fourth estate to speak truth to power, uphold and protect the people’s interests, and nudge state and society away from the predilections (most of which have proved disastrous in the past) of the national security state to the exclusion of the people’s freedom of expression and its concomitant struggle for rights. Governments as far back as one can remember (military, civilian, and military-dominated) have been trying to convince the people that a free press exists, in the face of the undeniable truth that this is an outright lie. The current PTI government, along with all its other ‘achievements’ will surely go down in history as the worst collaborator of the national security state in throttling the media and the people’s freedom of expression rights.

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Copyright Business Recorder, 2021