A Pakistani fruit vendor reads a newspaper as he waits for customers on a street in Islamabad. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi
A Pakistani fruit vendor reads a newspaper as he waits for customers on a street in Islamabad in 2017. The federal capital has been identified as a danger zone for journalists. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

On the same day as I received mail from Reporters Without Borders (aka Reporters Sans Frontières, or RSF) about the release of World Press Freedom Index 2021, Absar Alam, a senior journalist, was shot and wounded in Islamabad. Pakistan’s improved ranking in the Press Freedom Index coinciding with this shooting invoked paradoxical thoughts about the state of press freedom in the country.

Currently, Pakistan is ranked 145th out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index, the same as in the 2020 report. However, the country’s global score has increased by 1.34. Yet on-the-ground evidence shows that press freedom has actually been declining in the country. 

Paradoxically, the report released by Freedom Network Pakistan on May 3, Press Freedom Day, reveals surprising facts about the overall state of press freedom in the country. The report is based on data compiled between May 2020 and April this year. It records 148 cases of attacks and other violations against media, which is an increase of 40% as compared with the statistics collected between May 2019 and April 2020. 

Moreover, according to the report, Islamabad is the most dangerous region for the journalists. Of total attacks and and other violations, 34% were recorded in Islamabad. This makes the federal capital one of the least safe places in Pakistan for journalists. On a more serious note, the report disclosed that six journalist lost their lives between May 2020 and last month. 

Pandemic and freedom of press

Freedom of expression has been going through a repressive situation globally. For instance, China arrested four citizen journalists on charges of “sharing information with the outer world” during the pandemic. Only one of those journalists has reappeared after going missing. 

Similarly, the Covid-19 pandemic has presented another front in the war that Pakistani journalists have to fight. At least 10 journalists have lost their lives to the disease. On the government’s part, the lack of interest in helping journalists cover the pandemic suggest the authorities fear the media might expose their mishandling the Covid-19 crisis.  

Press freedom under Imran Khan

Press freedom in Pakistan has undergone severe censorship since Prime Minister Imran Khan took the reins of the government.

To mark the start of his government, his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), initiated widely eulogized “austerity measures” to stabilize the faltering economy. Some of these measures were indeed able to lead to some gains. Under the PTI initiative, the expenditures of Prime Minister House dropped by 49%. Moreover, a report also revealed that some industries had started doing well after the measures were introduced. 

Despite such gains, however, the austerity measures hit the press as the government decided to stop spending on “unnecessary” advertisements. That decision was accompanied by strict censorship measures pressuring the media to toe the government’s line.

Subsequently, two prominent current-affairs magazines succumbed to the financial crisis unleashed by the government. Herald and Newsline stopped publication in 2019. Both magazines were known for investigative stories that gave voice to the downtrodden and marginalized. 

In addition, the government’s approval of amending the Pakistan Penal Code and Code of Criminal Procedure 1898 to penalize those who intentionally ridicule and defame the armed forces has drawn criticism from opposition parties and civil society alike

Media repression linked to declining human rights

In 2017, researchers Anita R Gohdes and Sabine C Carey in a paper titled “Canaries in a coal-mine? What the killings of journalists tell us about future repression” found that the killing of journalists presaged more repression and deterioration of overall human rights in upcoming years.

According to the researchers, if governments order the killing of journalists, they are willing to use extreme measures to uproot threats faced by uncontrolled flows of information. Similarly, if non-state actors kill journalists, such acts lead to insecurity, thus inviting more state repression in return. In both cases, the researchers argue, state-sponsored repression is inevitable. 

To put it in the context of Pakistan, a fair analysis can be drawn from data on the killing of journalists. For instance, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has revealed startling facts in this regard.

Almost 100 journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 1994. In 2010 and 2011, a record 11 journalists were killed each year. But it is possible to see a rise in journalist fatalities beginning earlier, after the terrorist attacks in the US of September 11, 2001 – more specifically, after the murder of The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl in Karachi in February 2002.

After 2010-11 during which a high number of journalists were murdered in Pakistan, the trend of impunity is revisiting the country once again under the PTI regime. And on the basis of the research conducted by Gohdes and Carey, the coming years will see more repression on press freedom, translating into a deterioration of human rights generally. 

Ayaz Khan

Ayaz Khan is a journalist and researcher from Pakistan. He covers climate change across the region and Pakistan. He tweets at @Ayaz_Jurno