Pakistani media 'most vibrant' in Asia, threatened by powerful groups inside country: RSF

Published: April 27, 2018


KARACHI: Pakistan was ranked 139 out of 180 countries on the 2018 World Press Freedom Index compiled and released by the international non-governmental organisation Reporters Without Borders, also known as Reporters Sans Frontières.

According to a country-specific analysis by the non-profit group which accompanied the publication of the annual listing, the journalistic community was openly targetted by both state and non-state actors within the country over the past few months, often without consequences.

Various interest groups also condemned and harassed reporters regarded as ‘insufficiently sympathetic’ to their views, festering a culture of impunity among predators of press freedom, underlined the non-profit network.

However, the Paris-based body praised the Pakistani media for being the most vibrant in Asia, and for a slight improvement in annual score, 43.55 in 2017 to 43.24 in 2018 (zero being the best score), which was linked to the sobering fact that no journalist was killed for expressing his/her views in the country this year.

“Pakistan is still ranked 139 out of 180 countries, between India (138) and Thailand (140). It is the same rank as last year, even though the overall score of the country has improved,” RSF told The Express Tribune in an exclusive statement.

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“The abduction of five bloggers in January 2017 explains why the score has not improved significantly. This status quo is linked to the fact that the traditional dynamism of Pakistani press is still under the double pressure of the state on one hand, and several armed groups, especially religious extremists, on the other,” the statement added.

Judicial activism, political upheavals, terrorist attacks and rising frustration over corruption and incompetence in governmental circles, evidenced by massive street protests in the past few months, have contributed towards a steadily worsening political and security situation ahead of general elections scheduled for later this year.

The press has found itself under pressure from multiple sides, as warring parties find it easy to denounce acts of ‘sacrilege’ by the media. According to RSF, the central and regional governments and members of political and religious organisations continue to harass, threaten, or physically attack journalists regarded as ‘insufficiently sympathetic’ to their views.

“Deadly attacks against journalists continue to take place every year, even if the number has tended to fall in the past five years. In October 2017, armed groups in Balochistan issued an ultimatum to journalists, threatening them with violence if they continued to refuse to cover the actions and statements of these groups,” Reporters Without Borders highlighted in the country-specific analysis.

The natural consequence of this climate of fear under which journalists now work in the country has led to widespread newsroom self-censorship, the non-profit group stated.

Regional analysis

These trends are not just limited to just Pakistan, and the hatred of the press all over the world is now directly threatening liberal democracies, as well other systems of governance, according to RSF.

For example, regional reviews of press freedom worldwide revealed that the countries in the Middle East are ranked bottom on the index as armed conflicts and political clashes make reporting ‘extremely dangerous’ in the area. Terrorism charges against independent journalists and media, especially in Turkey and Egypt, sparked global outrage in 2017 and 2018. War-ravaged Syria is ranked 177, Yemen at 167, and Iraq does not fare much better, listed at 160. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Egypt are also ranked low in the index.

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The European model of independent journalism also shows signs of erosion, despite the fact that Scandinavian countries are again ranked the top nations for press and the free media, contends the Paris-based network. Amid growing online surveillance, Europeans have been shocked by the murder of two journalists, as well as by threats to investigative reporters and unprecedented verbal attacks on the media. Eastern European nations are ranked lower than western ones, as Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Serbia scored higher than France, Spain or England, and central countries like Germany and Italy, on the list.

Mass surveillance in China clouds the Asia-Pacific, as smaller countries falling under the economic influence of Beijing copy it, partly to stabilise volatile domestic politics. North Korea is ranked at the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index, while China is four places better, in 176th. Vietnam is 175, Cambodia is listed at 142, while India is ranked 138. Hate speech, hostile leaders, and physical violence are all contributing factors to media performance in the region, which is called ‘the worst for press freedom in the world’.

The United States has fallen in the rankings compared to 2017, while Canada climbs the index. RSF noted that journalists and media workers face constant challenges to the very freedom to exercise their profession, quoting the infamous remark by US President Donald Trump, in which he labelled the press ‘an enemy of the American people’. Latin American countries registered a mixed performance on the 2018 index, as the press continued to face problems with violence and authoritarian regimes, but some countries also passed legislation safeguarding journalists.

Conclusions drawn about press freedom by the non-profit group this year highlighted that growing animosity and hostility towards journalists is now more openly encouraged by political leaders globally, and ‘the efforts of authoritarian regimes to export their vision of journalism pose a threat to democracies’.

‘Dissent is criminalised’

The RSF representative in Pakistan, Iqbal Khattak, spoke to The Express Tribune about the media in Pakistan and worldwide trends related to the freedom of the press, in light of the publication of the index.

“Free press is under attack from all sides in Pakistan despite the fact that a major threat actor, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, has significantly been neutralised in their strongholds in Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa,” he said.

Khattak noted that state and non-state actors, in collusion with political parties and religious groups, were involved in attacks on the free press inside the country. He was of the opinion that television channels were prime targets of these threats, followed by the critical print media.

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“In recent months, the judiciary is also targeting the press by banning ‘dissent’ which it sees as ‘contempt’. The pressure on the press is mounting ahead of general elections in Pakistan, and it is a great matter of concern for RSF,” Khattak stated.

Commenting on the importance of a free press for a functional democracy to work in Pakistan, Iqbal Khattak said that the press needs to hold public and government representatives accountable for a transparent governance system.

“Pakistan is getting closer to China and Russia, and these powerful countries are not really renowned for their free press. As Islamabad warms up ties with these nations, it will influence our policy-making as well,” Khattak said in response to a question about the influence of Chinese mass surveillance in the Asia-Pacific.

The RSF representative revealed that around 117 journalists had been killed in Pakistan since 2002, and just three of these cases had so far been resolved in the court of law.

“Existing laws about the press have failed to protect journalists or fight impunity, and special laws are now needed to protect reporters and editors, both at the federal and provincial levels,” he added.

According to Khattak, Reporters Without Borders claimed that self-censorship was being exercised by media organisations in Pakistan as a tool to stay safe against threats.

“Pakistan has also started to crack down on digital newsrooms. The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, for example, is used more against dissenters than elements deemed involved in cyber crimes.”

Dissent is increasingly being criminalised, and this could prove to be a significant setback for the free press in Pakistan, Khattak maintained.

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