Every year, May 3rd is a date that celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom. It is a time to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.
While in Pakistan the good news is that the killing of journalists has seen a merciful reduction, intimidation of the media continues to grow. A comprehensive report on the state of Pakistani media in 2018 has been prepared by the Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) and it is worth pondering over.
In 2018, says the report, what the media endured included an unprecedented level of externally-induced self-censorship. This was the year of the general elections in Pakistan and journalists recall how overt and covert pressures on the media in the run-up to the elections cast aspersions on the fairness of the electoral exercise.
As one of the most dangerous countries in the world for media persons, Pakistan has witnessed the killing of 72 media workers since 2002, including 48 that were deliberately targeted and murdered. Except for five cases, most of these fatalities have continued to remain unsolved and perpetrators remain unpunished. It is sad that successive governments have seemed reluctant to probe the murders of journalists.
During 2018, the PPF investigated six cases of the murder of journalists. However, it determined that the primary causes of murders were personal or business animosities and rivalries rather than relating to their work as journalists.
At the same time, physical assault is a problem for Pakistani journalists. There were at least 22 cases of physical assault in which five journalists were injured while 25 others were beaten and manhandled.
Abducting journalists is another common tactic to intimidate. There are three documented cases of abduction and attempted abduction in 2018.
Another area of concern is online harassment, which is increasing throughout the world. Pakistan is no exception. The report also documented seven cases where journalists in Pakistan face legal action.
Not to forget is that the state of the media industry in Pakistan which witnessed serious economic pressures in 2018. This resulted in the closure of a television channel and several newspapers which, in turn, led to the loss of employment for hundreds of journalists and other media professionals.
The economic pressures included average per-minute reduction in rates for government advertisements for television channels. The government has cut the rates drastically and journalists are bearing the brunt.
The government has also announced plans to merge the existing separate regulations for print, electronic and online media into a single powerful super-regulation body. Under the proposed regulation, one regulatory body to be called the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA) would be created with the merger of existing regulatory authorities including the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), which regulates the electronic media, and the Press Council of Pakistan (PCP), the quasi self-regulatory mechanism for the print media.
In September 2018, the government also constituted a Content Committee that would approve advertisements for the print and electronic media. The newly-formed body will work to see that no advertisement should be released to the print or electronic media by the provincial or federal government without prior approval of this committee.
In the name of rationalisation, media regulation and commercial content are being centralised and monitored. This puts media freedom under a cloud, say observers.
With regard to the online media, Pakistan is among those that made the largest number of requests for content restrictions in the first half of 2018. We emerged as the number one country in the world with 2,203 requests to Facebook for content restriction.
The ‘Twitter Transparency Report’ ranked Pakistan on third highest with 3,004 profiles to the social networking site for inciting violence and spreading hate material. This suggests that a lot of content that cannot make it to the mainstream media is now finding its way online particularly on social media.
Online platforms continue to grow in Pakistan. One of the most popular sources of information as well as misinformation in the country is WhatsApp.
In the final analysis, one can conclude that the media is facing unprecedented challenges in Pakistan. The task is to remain on the right track — to report truthfully and ethically. That is becoming more difficult with each passing day.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 29th, 2019.