Pakistan has fallen six places - 139 to 145 - in the Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom Index since 2018
There has always been a question mark over press freedom in nearly 74 years of Pakistan’s existence. Different regimes have attempted to control the media one way or the other, inviting criticism from various parts of the world. The most recent controversy came to light over issues concerning the safety and well-being of media personnel, especially those critical of government policies, or perceived as anti-establishment.
The controversy was sparked off by an incident involving an attack on famous YouTuber Asad Ali Toor on May 25 by “unknown men”, who broke into Toor’s house and thrashed him, allegedly for his anti-establishment stance in his YouTube videos.
Many prominent Pakistani journalists have come out in Toor’s support, openly blaming the establishment and a few high-ranking officers of the Pakistan Army for the incident.
Veteran journalist and Geo TV anchor Hamid Mir delivered a fiery speech at the Pakistan Press Club, Islamabad, wherein he openly blamed the Pakistani establishment for orchestrating the attack on Toor. Mir stated that he and his fellow journalists had protested several times in the past regarding press freedom and safety of journalists in the country, but no concrete action appears to have been taken.
The media can play its constructive role in democracy only if there is an encouraging environment that allows them to work in a free and fair manner. Mir pointed out the ‘deplorable’ condition of press freedom alleging that the establishment itself was involved in such ‘shameful’ incidents. Mir exhorted fellow journalists to give a loud message to the establishment, which habitually pressurizes mediapersons to achieve their objectives.
Mir challenged the Pakistan establishment to admit, if they had spine, that their men broke into Toor’s house and desist from spreading stories of extramarital affairs against journalists, whenever they dared to speak against the establishment.
Using the metaphor “General Rani”, (the name given to Aqleem Akhtar, said to be close to erstwhile military leader of Pakistan General Yahya Khan and regarded as the country's most powerful woman during his regime), Mir warned he could leak insider stories of conspiracies involving Pakistan Army generals.
Referring to earlier attacks on Matiullah Jan, Afsar Alam and himself, Mir alleged that the establishment had been pressurizing the Pakistan media to build a pro-Israel narrative or endorse a new narrative on pursuing friendly ties with India. However, he underscored that Pakistani media will stick to the narrative given by the country’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
Mir also highlighted that many journalists in Pakistan were facing sedition charges, including himself, Asad Ali Toor, Asma Shirazi, Munzae Jahangir, Fauzia Shahid and Tahira Abdullah for not following the dictates of the establishment. After his tirade against the government, Mir was taken off the air.
Reiterating Mir’s words, Shirazi asserted that they are not afraid of the Pakistani establishment and will not promote their narrative despite threats, attacks, torture and pressure. She condemned the kidnapping of Matiullah Jan and the propaganda against him.
Munzae Jahangir, another Pakistani journalist, during the press conference, condemned state-sponsored repression of Balochistan people and referred to the 2014 killing of journalist Irshad Mastoi - Secretary General of Baluchistan Union of Journalists - in his office. She denounced Article 19 of Pakistan’s constitution wherein freedom of speech to criticize the country’s army or the judiciary is not allowed.
Participating in the protest demonstration, opposition PML(N) spokesperson and Pakistan National Assembly member Maryam Aurangzeb expressed serious concerns over media freedom, forced silencing of opposing voices, safety and security of people including journalists in the country.
While condemning attacks on journalist Afsar Alam (April 20, 2021) inside a park, kidnapping of journalist Matiullah Jan and assault on Asad Toor inside his house, she demanded that reports of all attacks on journalists be made public.
Law to protect journalists
Aurangzeb also condemned Pakistan Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry for his comments that “all missing persons in Pakistan had willingly gone to Afghanistan”. She also warned about a proposed ordinance for regulating the media which, according to her, contains “draconian” provisions set to curb press freedom and media authority”. She urged journalists and media personnel to continue pressing hard for a law that will ensure security and safety of journalists.
A fresh incident came to light when Punjab provincial assembly member Syeda Maimanat Mohsin, more commonly known as Jugnu Mohsin, and wife of distinguished journalist Najam Sethi, was attacked in Okara. According to media reports, she had condemned attacks on journalists and submitted a resolution in the Punjab assembly three days before she was attacked.
In democracy media plays a very vital role in shaping and representing public opinion. The strength of the media undeniably represents the strength of democracy in a country. According to media watchdog Freedom Network, 33 journalists were killed in Pakistan between 2013 and 2019 for their work. Pakistan has fallen six places - 139 to 145 - in the Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom Index since 2018.
Media freedom is intrinsic to democracy and therefore, it is the responsibility of the state to ensure freedom of expression and safety and security of mediapersons.
(The writer is International Advisor, Millennial India International Chamber of Commerce Industry and Agriculture. The views are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)