Pakistani journalists continue to pay high price for free speech as 2023 marks another tough year
The year 2023 was not an easy one for journalists in Pakistan. The increasing number of attacks on members of the press fast eroded whatever semblance of free speech was left in the country.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Pakistan as one of the world’s deadliest countries for journalists owing to its high rate of impunity for the killers of journalists.
Similarly, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranked Pakistan 11th on its 2023 Global Impunity Index, which assesses countries with the worst records on prosecuting killers of journalists. The ranking takes into account the killing of eight journalists in Pakistan.
Violence against journalists has been prevalent in the country for decades, signified by the fact that 97 journalists and media workers have been killed over the past 30 years, and more than 3,500 journalists have been the victims of enforced disappearances since 2011, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
Journalists under siege in 2023
RSF ranked Pakistan 150 out of 180 countries on its World Press Freedom Index 2023, up from 157 last year. Despite the mild improvement in rankings, 2023 was a harrowing year for journalists and media personnel.
Akash Ram: In April, the marketing director at Bol Media Group was kidnapped in Karachi, and his whereabouts remain unknown to this day
Gohar Wazir: On April 19, Gohar Wazir was abducted and severely tortured at an unknown location for 30 hours before being released. Several journalists and activists protested against the police’s failure to register an FIR and arrest his culprits.
Wazir, who works with Khyber News and is president of the National Press Club Bannu, is vociferous on human rights issues affecting Pashtun people and militancy in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
According to a person familiar with Wazir’s case who spoke to CPJ, his captors warned him against the work he did, citing his reporting on local tribes resisting the construction of a gas pipeline in Bannu.
Wazir was also detained in 2019 for two days after he reported on demonstrations of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement and interviewed Mohsin Dawar, who was an MNA at the time.
Imran Riaz Khan: Television anchor and YouTuber Imran Riaz Khan was arrested on May 11 from the Sialkot airport and released more than four months later on September 25 after several stern warnings and orders from the Lahore High Court. He was arrested over his being an alleged threat to law and order, two days after violent protests broke out on May 9 following the arrest of PTI chairman Imran Khan.
Jahangir Hayat: Police allegedly arrested Hayat from his residence in Lahore on May 17, subjecting him and his family to physical assault and leaving him with severe injuries, including broken teeth and a hand injury. No arrest warrants were presented during the raid, nor was any reasoning given by the authorities for his arrest
Hayat, who works for Daily Business, told CPJ that he believes the assault and detention were acts of retaliation for his work as a journalist, including his reporting on crime and alleged police malfeasance.
Hayat’s assailants claimed he was wanted in connection with serious offences such as murder and kidnapping, which Hayat vehemently denied, according to a report by Voice.pk.
Sarfraz Ahmed Khan: Between May 21 and 23, police made at least 10 visits to Khan’s residence in Lahore and repeatedly searched the premises.
According to CJP, the police told Khan, who is the deputy bureau chief of privately owned broadcaster GNN, that an arrest warrant had been issued for him under the Anti-Terrorism Act.
A police document identified Sarfraz being present at the May 9 protests using facial recognition software, with personal details later leaked online, causing him to fear for his safety. He said police left after a senior Lahore police official issued an internal letter protecting him from harassment.
Sami Abraham: The BOL TV news anchor was abducted in Islamabad by unidentified men on May 24 and returned home on May 30.
Abraham is a staunch supporter of former prime minister Imran Khan, whom he frequently spoke about on his YouTube channel
Zubair Anjum: The executive producer for Geo News was picked up by police and plainclothes men on June 6 and released 24 hours later. The men allegedly barged into his residence, harassed his family, and confiscated his cell phone as well as a digital video recorder of the CCTV installed in Anjum’s neighbourhood.
The Karachi Press Club, of which Anjum is a member, said the abduction was “state terrorism” and an attempt to make the freedom of media “hostage” and impose restrictions on freedom of expression.
Ghulam Asghar Khand: On August 7, Khand was killed in Khairpur by unknown men who approached him on motorcycles and shot him at least nine times. According to the International Federation of Journalists, some reports indicated that Khand, who worked for Sindhi daily Sobh, had reported on illicit activities in the area before his death. No FIR was filed over his death, according to the IFJ.
Jan Muhammad Mahar: Senior journalist Jan Muhammad Mahar died after being shot multiple times from close range in a targeted attack in Sukkur on August 13 after leaving the KTN newsroom where he worked.
Mahar’s family filed an FIR, which stated that he was targeted and killed because the work he did to highlight the plight of the poor people in the country did not sit right with influential people.
In November, police claimed to have arrested one of the main suspects involved in Mahar’s murder.
Earlier in February, the wife of journalist Syed Fawad Ali Shah — who had been living as a refugee in Malaysia after fleeing Pakistan for safety reasons — learned that Shah was being held in Adiala Jail after being deported from Malaysia in August 2022. According to CPJ, Shah told her that authorities had held him for five months in an underground cell in Islamabad, where they abused him.
Shah fled Pakistan in 2011 after he was “abducted” by the authorities, who held him for three and a half months while beating and threatening him in retaliation for his reporting during the US war on terror.
Malaysian authorities said they deported Shah at the request of Pakistani authorities, who alleged that he was a police officer subject to disciplinary proceedings. Shah’s wife believes the Pakistani agencies worked with Malaysian authorities to repatriate him in retaliation for his journalism.
Why do journalists get kidnapped?
“By targeting journalists, the state aims to suppress dissenting voices and solidify its narrative dominance, given that media outlets play a pivotal role in shaping public opinion,” says Usama Khawar, a lawyer and policy expert.
According to Khawar, the abduction of journalists can be understood within the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA) theory put forward by French philosopher Louis Althusser.
“In this context, journalists are not only messengers but also symbolic figures representing the media as a crucial ISA.
“The kidnappings serve as a tool of fear and intimidation, discouraging critical reporting and ensuring that information aligns with the interests of the ruling establishment,” he explained.
Despite being part of civil society, the media can be a potential site of political struggle against hegemony, where journalists may challenge the prevailing ideology and Establishment’s material interests, Khawar added.
Another lawyer, Mirza Moiz Baig, explained that the state’s conduct towards journalists is symptomatic of a larger rule of law issue, adding that persistent lawlessness in Pakistan has disproportionately affected civil society, lawyers and journalists.
What impact do kidnappings have on democracy?
The backdrop of subtle authoritarianism in Pakistan is fast moving to the foreground as the state amps up its crackdown on media and free speech.
“The suppression of journalists undermines the fundamental democratic values of open discourse and the public’s right to know,” Khawar said. “Such actions erode the checks and balances essential for a thriving democracy, limiting diverse perspectives and impeding the media’s role as a watchdog.”
In addition to media censorship, journalists are compelled to self-censor when one journalist is abducted or harassed.
“These attacks and forms of intimidation have a chilling effect where journalists do not know what actions or what words may cause displeasure and may have adverse consequences for their safety and well-being,” Baig said.
Will things get better or worse for journalists with elections approaching?
Khawar is hopeful that the upcoming general elections on February 8 will allow a more open landscape for journalists and the media in general keeping in line with previous elections.
“The complex and fragmented nature of Pakistan makes it challenging for prolonged control and power exertion by any entity,” Khawar said, praising the media’s “remarkable resilience and tenacity in the face of state oppression.”
However, Baig is of the opinion that attacks against journalism, censorship and all other forms of harassment and intimidation usually increase close to elections.
“One would hope that this electoral cycle is different in the sense that journalists are able to report freely based on their honest and fair assessment and are not compelled to self censor or take a particular political line fearing recriminations unless they don’t comply,” Baig said.
Can international pressure protect journalists in Pakistan?
International organisations have repeatedly pressured the government to do more to protect its journalists.
In September, RSF and local media unions called upon political parties to commit to press freedom as general elections inched closer, saying that impunity for crimes against journalists and media personnel was “very high” in Pakistan.
A collective statement from the groups requested a “concrete commitment” to their proposals, “starting with the search for legislative guarantees for the protection of journalists and the fight against impunity for crimes of violence against them.”
“Such a high percentage of impunity for crimes against media practitioners and assistants is alarming and puts journalists in extreme danger for practising journalism, thus denying citizens of Pakistan their right to know and access information — the two fundamental rights enshrined in the 1973 Constitution of Pakistan, guaranteed by Articles 19 and 19A,” it added.
In July, the UN Human Rights Council adopted the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Pakistan.
As part of the review, Pakistan supported the recommendation to investigate all reports of intimidation and violence against journalists and human rights defenders; revise the law for Electronic Crimes and ensure that it does not affect the freedom of expression; end the extra-legal use of force as well as the use of enforced disappearances; consider reviewing anti-terrorism legislation that restrict freedom of expression, association and assembly, and to guarantee a safe and enabling environment for the work of journalists and human rights defenders.
Pakistan did not, however, support the recommendation to stop targeting political dissidents and legitimate political activities in Sindh, Balochistan and KP.
While pressure from international organisations has helped expedite the release of abducted journalists, it does not guarantee total immunity.
What has Pakistan done for the safety of its journalists?
In the past decade, Pakistan has taken tangible albeit ultimately futile steps to address the safety of journalists in the country.
In 2013, Pakistan endorsed the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. This catalyzed the creation of the Pakistan Coalition of Media on Safety (PCOMS) at the recommendations of the Islamabad Declaration, which aimed to promote the safety of journalists and media workers in Pakistan.
Surprisingly enough, Pakistan was the first country in the world in 2021 to legislate on the safety of journalists through a federal law passed by the national parliament and a provincial law passed by the Sindh Assembly. However, there are no laws in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or Punjab to protect journalists or counter the high levels of impunity of crimes against journalists.
However, it is important to note that Pakistan has not ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons against Enforced Disappearances, which means that enforced disappearances are not currently criminalised in the country.
Amnesty International has repeatedly urged Pakistan to sign the convention and put an end to enforced disappearances, while the UN High Commissioner has recommended similar action from the government.
According to the Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Act, 2021, the onus is on the government to “protect journalists and media professionals against forced or involuntary disappearances, kidnapping, abduction or other methods of coercion.”
Despite some strongly worded legislation and verbal commitments from various government officials, journalists continue being abducted, harassed and intimidated into silence.