For the Pakistani media, the World Press Freedom Day, which fell on May 3, should have been an occasion for reflection, not self-congratulation. Despite all the strides the media has made in the last decade, from the mushrooming of private electronic media channels to new ventures in print, the challenges remain daunting. Primary among these is the safety of reporters. Pakistan has often been termed the most dangerous country in the world for journalists and with good cause. From the militants on one side to the intelligence spooks on the other, journalists in the country know that they will not be spared scrutiny under any circumstance and that the punishment for stories that displease the powers-that-be is often death. It is a sad fact in our country, the more seasoned a journalist is, the higher the risk to their life.
Nearly a year after his tortured body was found, we still do not know who killed Saleem Shahzad. There was so much international outcry at the possibility that he may have been targeted by the intelligence agencies that a high-powered commission was set up to investigate his murder. The commission was unable to pinpoint the culprits but did seem to be in undue haste to absolve the agencies. Similarly, the murderers of journalist Wali Babar have been equally elusive. Part of the reason is that no matter how vibrant the press in Pakistan claims to be, it is not truly free. When reporters cross an imaginary line drawn by powerful interests, they end up paying the ultimate price and everyone else is thwarted in the quest for justice.
As deadly as official power to operate freely can be for journalists, the media in Pakistan faces other outside pressures as well. The decision to report on stories or, in many cases, not to report on them, is often dictated by advertisers. This is why, for example, the media rarely, if ever, acts as a watchdog on corporate power. Commercial interests usually trump the traditional adversarial role of the media. Be it fear of death or fear of declining revenue, anything that forces the press to censor itself should be considered a roadblock to media freedom. On this year’s World Press Freedom Day, it is these outside pressures that need to be recognised and overcome.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 4th, 2012.