Challenges for press freedom
In December 1993, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly declared May 3 World Press Freedom day, to remind governments of their duty to respect the right to freedom of expression enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The date was not chosen arbitrarily; May 3 is the anniversary of the Windhoek declaration, made by a group of African journalists in Windhoek, Namibia, after that country’s struggle for independence from South African rule ended in 1990. The document called for world leaders to never allow freedom of the press to come under threat and when it was put before the General Assembly it inspired representatives to enshrine a day as reminder of the importance of a free press to democratic government. Those were heady days at the UN. The world was changing after the end of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain, apartheid had ended in South Africa, and many countries had recently completed their journeys towards democratic government. Pakistan was a leader among developing countries, recently coming out of a period of martial law, and adopted this resolution enthusiastically, while looking forward with the rest of the world to an era of open government and greater global prosperity. Today, however, the situation stands sadly reversed. The events of 9/11 and their aftermath have seen a steady growth in government powers for surveillance and detention around the world. Technology developed in the telecommunications revolution, besides giving people the internet and greater connectivity, has allowed governments to increase their tools for mass surveillance and constructing detailed personal profiles of individuals. The recent revelations of US whistleblower Edward Snowden about mass surveillance by the US National Security Agency (NSA) highlight the growing conflict between individual privacy and state security prerogatives. Formerly the world leader in press freedom the US slipped 13 places to 46 in Reporters Without Borders’ (RWB’s) press freedom rankings this year.
In Pakistan, it was after 9/11 that electronic media was deregulated by the government of President Pervez Musharraf in 2002. The subsequent explosion of private television channels, private publications and online journals has given the Pakistani press greater power. However, that is arguably not the same as greater freedom. Today Pakistan ranks 159 in RWB’s press freedom ranking, dropping eight places since last year, and it is also the most dangerous place for journalists in the world according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Between the years 1992-2005, 13 journalists were killed in Pakistan. That figure has since increased exponentially. Since 2006, 65 media persons, including reporters and workers, were killed either in the line of fire or in targeted attacks. Media organizations are regularly the targets of violence, particularly by militants in the tribal areas who have claimed numerous attacks on media houses they felt were critical of their activities. Threats to Pakistani journalists come from state and non-state actors alike, according to Amnesty International, which in its latest report said that Pakistani authorities have “almost completely failed to stem human rights abuses against media workers or to bring those responsible to account”. An Amnesty representative indicated that despite more state guarantees for media freedom, the situation on the ground remained one of intimidation where “the climate of fear has already had a chilling effect on freedom of expression”. This is a fact many Pakistani journalists can attest to. Though the government slammed the report, the recent attacks on journalists Hamid Mir and Raza Rumi, among others, show how true that description is. Sadly, in the rest of the world as well, journalists face increasingly authoritarian resistance to their right to collect and disseminate information for the public. RWB reports: “Countries that pride themselves on being democracies and respecting the rule of law have not set an example…Freedom of information is too often sacrificed to an overly broad and abusive interpretation of national security needs.” The challenge for the press is to remain objective and ethical irrespective of government depredations and fulfil the public trust we inherit. In spite of the advances of the last few years, it appears the struggle for press freedom still continues.