From special coercive law to blatant censorship, the Pakistani media has witness many forms of oppression in its 71 years of struggle-filled existence.
But in 2018 the media endured an unprecedented level of imposed “self-censorship” through tactics unbecoming of a responsible state. Those who refuse to fall in line suffer loss of readership and viewership. Unjustified cover-ups and the suppression of truth regarding crucial questions of public accountability have seriously affected the perception of the quality of democracy in Pakistan.
2018 was a year of elections, overt and covert pressures on the media in the run-up to the elections cast aspersions on the fairness of the electoral exercise and were widely criticized by national as well as international observers including the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, The European Commission and the US based Committee to Protect Journalists.
As one of the most dangerous countries in the world for media persons, Pakistan has witnessed the murder of 72 journalists since 2002. Except for five cases, most of these fatalities have continued to remain unsolved and perpetrators remain unpunished. Successive governments have seemed reluctant to probe the murders of journalists.
The report State of Pakistani Media in 2018 by Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) focuses on instances of crimes against the media, where journalists are killed, murdered, abducted, assaulted, detained, and threatened by law enforcement agencies, militants, feudal lords, and tribal leaders. TV channels, newspapers, websites and social media are blocked and banned. Media personnel and media organizations are threatened and pressured by state and non-state actors.
Instances of the arrest of journalists, issuing non-bailable arrest warrants, registration of legal cases, contempt of court notices, and imposition of fines under defamation laws were also recorded among the pressures used in 2018 that sent a chilling message to all Pakistani journalists.
During 2018, PPF investigated six cases of the murder of journalists. However, PPF determined that the primary causes of murders were personal or business animosities and rivalries rather than relating to their work as journalists.
Those murdered during the year included: Ehsan Sherpao, Secretary General of Charsadda Press Club; Anjum Muneer Raja, sub-editor, daily Pukaar; Zeeshan Ashraf Butt, reporter, daily Nawa-i-Waqt; Abid Hussain, correspondent of daily Naya Daur, Multan; Saeed Butt, reporter, daily Khabrain; and Muhammad Sohail Khan, reporter, daily K2 Times and AVT Khyber television channel.
Physical assault continued to be a chronic problem for Pakistani journalists. According to the PPF research, there were at least 22 cases of physical assault in which five journalists were injured while 25 others were beaten and manhandled to stop them from performing their professional duties.
Abducting journalists is another common tactic to stop media practitioners from expressing their views on sensitive issues. PPF documented three cases of abduction and attempted abduction in 2018. They included Gul Bukhari, writer and columnist of The Nation; Taha Siddiqui, reporter of the France 24, New York Times, The Guardian; and Zaibdar Marri, President of the Kohlu Press Club and correspondent of the Express News.
The year also witnessed the release of social media activist Samar Abbas after one year. He went missing under mysterious conditions on January 7, 2017.
The forcible intrusion by armed personnel into the premises of Karachi Press Club (KPC) was the first in the club’s 60-year existence. KPC termed it an outcome of an ongoing campaign to subdue the press on the part of state and non-state actors.
Attacking the residence of a journalists is also used as pressure tactic on journalists, as they become overly cautious for the stake of their families’ safety. One such example of this in 2018 was the attack on the house of Manzoor Bughio, reporter of Channel 24 in Shaheed Benazirabad district in the Sindh province.
Online harassment is increasing throughout the world, including Pakistan. One such instance noted this year was when Saleem Safi, a prominent Pakistani journalist, columnist and anchorperson was made the target of abuse and harassment on social media for a comment he made in a television show.
PPF also documented seven cases where journalists in Pakistan face legal actions. These include: Nasrullah Khan Chaudhry, senior sub-editor of daily Nai Baat; Cyril Almeida, assistant editor and columnist of Dawn; Sailaab Mehsud of Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty’s Mashaal Radio and Zafar Wazir of Khyber TV; Matiullah Jan, a journalist and host of Waqt TV; Dr. Amir Liaquat Hussain, anchorperson of BOL TV; Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman of Jang group; and Umar Cheema, investigative reporter of Jang group.
The media industry in Pakistan also witnessed extreme economic pressures which resulted in the closure of a television channel and a number of newspapers, which in turn led to the loss of employment for hundreds of journalists and other media professionals.
On the policy front, the newly elected government of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf announced plans to merge the existing separate regulations for print, electronic and online media into a single powerful regulation body. Under the proposed regulation one mega regulatory body to be called Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA) would be created with the merger of existing regulatory authorities including Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) and Press Council of Pakistan (PCP). Most media bodies including The All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS), Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE) and PCP have strongly opposed the proposed law.
In September 2018, government also constituted a Content Committee that would approve advertisements for the print and electronic media. The newly-formed body, headed by the Federal Minister of Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry, 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.
The government also announced a drastic reduction in the rates of advertisements charged by television channels for government advertisements. The new rates will be valid for federal and provincial governments, autonomous bodies and public sector organizations.
Media outlets remain under pressure from the authorities to avoid reporting on several issues including criticism of government institutions and the judiciary. There were at least 31 instances of journalists, anchorpersons, and television channels being issued show-cause notices, suspensions of anchor persons, blocking of websites, and disruptions of distribution of newspapers.
The circulation of a number of newspapers including Dawn remained blocked in cantonments and parts of Balochistan, and transmission of Geo television channel was blocked in many parts of the country.
Pakistan was among the countries that had made the largest number of requests for content restrictions on leading social media platforms. According to Facebook Transparency Report released on November 16, Pakistan 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.