KARACHI/ISLAMABAD: The climate for press freedom in Pakistan has been deteriorating, even as overall violence against and murder of journalists decline, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said on Wednesday.
In a special report compiled after recording testimonies of journalists in various cities of the country, the CPJ said that journalists, including freelancers, had “painted a picture of a media under siege”.
The contents of the report appear to suggest that it is based on the period before the coming into power of the PTI government.
“The military has quietly, but effectively, set restrictions on reporting: from barring access to regions … to encouraging self-censorship through direct and indirect methods of intimidation, including calling editors to complain about coverage and even allegedly instigating violence against reporters,” observed the CPJ, an independent organisation working to promote press freedom worldwide.
A request emailed by CPJ for comment on the report to spokesman for the armed forces Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor was not answered. Gen Ghafoor did not respond to a request for a meeting as well, it added. A scheduled interview with the then information minister in Islamabad was cancelled at the last minute by the government, the CPJ stated.
According to journalists and press freedom advocates quoted by the CPJ, the decline in violence against members of the press followed the military’s swift response to the terrorist attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School in December 2014.
“While a drop in the murders of journalists is good news, the threat of attack remains,” the report warned.
Journalists and editors across the country, it added, had resorted to self-censorship due to a “widespread sense of intimidation”.
According to them, issues on which caution was frequently exercised while reporting include religion, land disputes, militants, and the economy — subjects that could provoke government officials, militant groups, religious extremists, or the military, it said.
The report observed that legislation such as the Pakistan Protection Ordinance, a counterterrorism law that allows people to be detained without being charged for 90 days, could be used to punish critical reporting.
“I think the numbers [of killed journalists] are going down because the resistance from the media that used to come, let’s say five years or six years ago, had drastically gone down as well,” the report quoted Asad Baig, founder and executive director of Media Matters for Democracy, as saying.
“And that is perhaps because of the very organised control mediums in place. People are very clear about what to say, and what not to say, what are those clearly drawn red lines that they cannot cross,” he added.
It cited the attack on journalist Ahmed Noorani, blocks in the transmission of Geo News and curbs on the circulation of Dawn newspaper as examples of declining press freedom within the past one year.
The report also spoke of a news story about a meeting of the top civil-military officials published in Dawn in 2016, that later became known as ‘Dawn Leaks’.
Journalists find themselves in the middle of this [civilian government vs military] battle, struggling to report while staying out of trouble, it said.
The military and other powerful institutions had established lines of control to stifle the press, the report said, adding that self-censorship had resulted in Pakistani media consumers not getting “a full or accurate picture of critical issues facing the country”.
In a series of recommendations to the government, the CPJ urged the authorities to move swiftly to revise and enact the draft journalist safety legislation that included provisions for a special prosecutor to pursue crimes against press freedom. The special prosecutor must be given statutory authority to conduct investigations or to compel other law enforcement agencies to investigate these crimes, it added.
It advised against use of the Pakistan Protection Ordinance under which journalists can be imprisoned for up to 90 days without charges for their reporting and urged the authorities to cease the practice of placing journalists on the Exit Control List over their reporting.
The CPJ asked for disclosure of the findings of all official inquiries into attacks on journalists and investigations into matters involving press freedom, including the inquiries into the attack on Hamid Mir and the `Dawn Leaks’ case.
Finally, the CPJ called for laws and regulations that guaranteed access to electronic and print news and take legal action against those who disrupt news distribution. When contacted, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry challenged the CPJ’s report, saying the body had not explained as to what criteria it had adopted for preparation of its report.
The minister said the situation of freedom of expression in Pakistan was far better than many countries. However, he said, there was always room for improvement in it.
He asked the journalist bodies to bring to his notice any specific complaints and held out the assurance that the government would take necessary action in accordance with laws and the Constitution.