The threats to freedom of expression in Pakistan appear to have increased during the pandemic, which according to a latest report, has exacerbated pre-existing weaknesses.
In its assessment titled 'Pakistan Freedom of Expression Report 2020', Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD) said freedom of expression witnessed notable declines during the pandemic.
Pakistan, the report said, performed miserably in all areas used to assess the overall situation of free speech. The country scored 30 points out of 100 on the Freedom of Expression Assessment Index, which indicates that the state of freedom of expression remained poor in the country over the past twelve months.
If journalists criticize what the government is doing, just get used to it. It's what happens in a democracy
Steven Butler, Asia Program Coordinator, at the Committee to Protect Journalists
The Islamabad-based non-profit organisation, which is geared towards rights-based advocacy for freedom of media said, its assessment of the state of freedom of expression in Pakistan was based on six factors, namely: legal environment, press freedom, digital expression, pluralism, the socioeconomic and political situation, and protection from threats to expression.
Supported by the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) programme of the European Union (EU), the report said Pakistan’s media and internet regulatory authorities "continued to exert arbitrary legal and regulatory restrictions on speech and online content, by ordering bans, suspensions, and advisories against social media applications, entertainment content, and news discussions of social and political issues.
It also cautioned that media practitioners in the country remain vulnerable to physical, legal, and digital threats due to the absence of legislation for their safety.
While local and international experts, who monitor and support freedom of speech were not surprised by the findings of the report, they were concerned about the restrictions and their long-term ramifications.
Consequences of restrictions are particularly self-defeating in the time of Covid-19
Zohra Yusuf, former chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan
“The consequences of restricting free expression during the pandemic are that the public will be less informed,” said Steven Butler, Asia Program Coordinator, at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based advocacy group that promotes press freedom and defends the rights of journalists.
“Rather than bolstering trust in what the government says, it's likely to have the opposite effect,” said CPJ’s Butler, who was denied entry into Pakistan and deported two years ago.
He urged the government to allow journalists to perform their duties without any interference. “If journalists criticize what the government is doing, just get used to it. It's what happens in a democracy,” said Butler by email.
While such restrictions are not new to media practitioners in Pakistan, the fresh curbs during the pandemic, experts said, were ‘dangerous’ in the age of widespread misinformation.
“Consequences of restrictions are particularly self-defeating in the time of Covid-19. More information is needed, rather than less, so that citizens are aware of the severity of the problem,” said Zohra Yusuf, former chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
In its 62-page report, the advocacy group said the media industry witnessed the death of at least eight individuals during this period. “As many as 23 instances of arbitrary detentions in connection with news reporting and online expression were recorded across Pakistan during the year,” the document said.
One goal that the authorities should try to reach is to fight impunity for crimes against journalists
Daniel Bastard, Asia-Pacific Director at Reporters without Borders
Similarly, for reporting on political issues and the government's pandemic response, the report said, female journalists were particularly targeted with coordinated online attacks.
Commenting on the number of attacks on journalists during the year, Yusuf said: “In June 2020, PEMRA issued a directive to the media stating, "No information should be aired which is tantamount to character assassination of frontline healthcare workers". As with all directives, HRCP’s former chairperson said this was ‘vaguely framed’ and prone to abuse. “Two journalists were arrested and tortured in Chaman, Balochistan, for reporting on the poor condition of a quarantine centre for returnees from Afghanistan.”
From Paris, Daniel Bastard, who heads Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Asia-Pacific desk, shared similar concerns about the state of press freedom and freedom of expression in Pakistan.
“In the context of the pandemic, it is very dangerous for the authorities to prevent Pakistani citizens from independent and trustful information that can be obtained only through a free press,” Bastard told the Express Tribune in an email.
Bastard, who regularly speaks in support of press freedom, which has seen notable declines in the region during the coronavirus pandemic, urged the government to return to the promised constitutional rights in this matter. Referring to the recent attempts to restrict online and offline discourse, he cautioned that the future of free expression is ‘compromised in Pakistan’.
Pakistan’s global ranking may take a harder hit in the watchdog’s upcoming report
Iqbal Khattak, Representative of Reporters Without Borders in Pakistan
Last year, the government decided to roll out new internet rules that, according to critics, granted sweeping censorship powers to the regulators. Approved by Prime Minister Imran Khan’s cabinet in February 2020, the new rules gave the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), a regulatory body, the powers to remove and block digital content that “harms, intimidates or excites disaffection” towards the government or poses a threat to the “integrity, security and defence of Pakistan”. The move irked digital rights activists in the country.
Responding to a question, RSF’s Daniel Bastard urged authorities to prevent legislation that is aimed at limiting freedom of expression. Freedom of expression, he said, is a fundamental right that Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father, considered absolutely crucial to the development of Pakistan. “One goal that the authorities should try to reach is to fight impunity for crimes against journalists,” said Bastard.
Over the past few years, media freedom has continued its uninterrupted downward spiral in Pakistan. In its 2020 global press freedom report, RSF ranked Pakistan 145th out of the 180 countries. The Paris-based watchdog stated that the media in Pakistan has become a priority target for the country’s “deep state”.
Describing the situation as 'dismal', Iqbal Khattak, who serves as the representative of RSF in Pakistan said: “The best measuring tool to know the state of democracy is to take a look at the country’s global ranking, and it is indeed not good,” said Khattak. Pakistan’s global ranking, the RSF representative warned, may take a harder hit in the watchdog’s upcoming report.