Pakistan’s political instability and polarisation lead to attacks on press freedom and media safety – Pakistan Press Foundation.
Pakistan has been plagued by political instability and uncertainty during 2022-23, leading to a charged political environment and polarisation. Unfortunately, this has resulted in attacks on media safety and press freedom in the country.
This is the main finding of the report, Press Freedom and Media Safety in Pakistan 2022-2023: Restricted content, physical violence and loaded rhetoric: Political Polarisation and uncertainty impinge media safety in Pakistan, released by Pakistan Press Foundation on the World Press Freedom Day.
The report documents how the media has directly felt the impact of the political upheaval through physical attacks at political rallies, the registration of cases and arrests of journalists, loaded rhetoric used to attack critical journalists, and state-mandated regulations cutting off the media’s ability to cover critical developments.
An environment of partisan politics has kept the media under attack, leading to at least 72 documented instances of physical attacks on journalists and media professionals, including two killings of journalists, 62 instances of manhandling or injuries, three instances of kidnappings or abductions, three instances of raids, and two detentions. Journalists were threatened in at least 20 instances, and the trolling, harassment, and abuse of journalists online also continued.
The death of Channel 5 reporter Sadaf Naeem while covering a rally in October 2022 highlighted the unfortunate lack of safety measures for journalists on the ground, including at political rallies, elections, and other venues. The death of Naeem and another journalist, Arshad Sharif, who was killed in Kenya, should serve as a turning point for media safety in Pakistan. However, the recently announced Code of Conduct for National Media and the Code of Conduct for political parties issued by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) are vague and ambiguous, lacking explicit measures for media safety.
Journalists have also faced arrests due to their work, including anchorperson Imran Riaz Khan, who was arrested twice during the past year and a half, and Bol News journalist Shahid Aslam, who was arrested in connection with a data leak of information regarding a former army chief. Aslam’s arrest demands for his password, and seizure of his electronic devices directly violate his ability to do his work freely, indicating a culture where laws safeguarding journalists can openly be violated. Similarly, ARY News head Ammad Yousaf was arrested without warrants, and his privacy rights were violated. These incidents demonstrate the need for better protection for journalists in Pakistan.
On March 20, the Lahore High Court annulled Section 124-A of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) concerning sedition.
As political temperatures ran high, many rallies and protests were held. As the Pakistan Tehreek I Insaf (PTI) protested the ouster of their party chairman as the country’s premier, the media at these events became the target of harassment and physical attacks. Multiple journalists were injured in April, and May 2022, and DSNG vans of various networks were damaged.
Meanwhile, political rhetoric by leaders of two of Pakistan’s most prominent political parties in Pakistan — PTI and the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) — has further attempted to malign journalists. By making baseless or unverified allegations against them, the trolling, harassment and discrediting of media professionals are justified by political figures.
As the sitting prime minister, Khan labelled some journalists as mafias and blackmailers. Such baseless claims by the top of the country’s leadership are dangerous and fuel fires against a media already under attack. Meanwhile, PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz has made her stance clear on numerous occasions, such as by removing the microphone of ARY News during a press conference or resharing an insensitive tweet following the murder of Arshad Sharif.
The callous attitude of the political leadership at a time when political divisions are rife is dangerous for the safety of the media and press freedom. Such rhetoric is not without impact and is likely to alienate the public from the media, create certain impressions, and undermine the media’s credibility. In other cases, it can justify acts of violence or ignite such attacks.
In the case of women journalists, rhetoric by key political figures is based upon personal attacks and character assassination of women in the media, similar to the online trolling and harassment they face. Khan’s claim that News One anchor Gharida Farooqi was asking for abuse by entering male-dominated spaces is a dangerous statement implying fault lies with a woman when she faces harassment.
At the state level, control of the media has continued unabated. Policies and measures impeding free expression were commonplace throughout this period, with the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) acting more as a media censor than a regulator.
An overzealous regulator, PEMRA took it upon itself to ban entire coverage topics, depriving the public of its right to access information and making journalists work significantly harder.
From bans on addresses by the former prime minister and coverage of terror attacks to bans on proceedings outside courts and a ban on reporting on the conduct of sitting judges, PEMRA has issued directives or prohibition orders in at least 15 instances. These blanket bans on coverage have further shrunk the space for free expression and created an environment of increased redlines and barriers to free speech.
Ahead of a general election, where the free flow of information and access to information is vital, such measures by PEMRA are likely to undermine the role of the media.
Instead of acting as a media regulator, PEMRA appears to be working as a censor board. Its prohibition orders have created a minefield of redlines for the media to work within.
Additionally, its punitive action has included the closure of channels.
The past year saw the cancellation of licenses, closure of channels and the issuance of show-cause notices. ARY News and Bol News witnessed multiple instances where transmission was disrupted, as well as state-mandated closures.
In August 2022, the government cancelled the No-Objection Certificate (NOC) for ARY, effectively suspending news transmission from this television channel. The move came just days after the transmission of the channel was suspended across parts of the country, and ARY staff were arrested and had cases registered against them. The Sindh High Court had suspended the notice of the interior ministry.
On Sep 5, 2022, PEMRA announced to stop the broadcasting of Bol News and Bol Entertainment due to the failure of security clearance from the interior ministry.
These closures were once repeated in 2023. In March, both ARY News and Bol News faced closures.
On March 5, PEMRA suspended ARY’s broadcast for airing clips of former premier Imran Khan despite a prohibition order issued against airing his speeches. On March 18, Bol News was blocked when it continued airing proceedings at the Judicial Complex during former premier Imran Khan’s appearance despite a prohibition order.
Channel closures repress press freedom and create financial challenges for media houses.
With general elections expected in 2023, the impact of political polarisation on media safety and press freedom is of grave concern. While the role of the media to report freely is always vital, it is even more so during a period of political transition, particularly for elections which require rigorous reporting and accountability. The media must be able to report on critical developments in the country without the fear of reprisal, including physical attacks, threats or legal proceedings, state-mandated prohibition or the use of political rhetoric focussed on character assassination.
Similarly, the push for monitoring content online has also increased.
A presidential ordinance passed under the PTI government proposed greater control of the digital media landscape, strengthening the draconian Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act 2016. It was later overturned by the Islamabad High Court (IHC). Coming into power, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) government led by PML-N made sweeping promises on press freedom, including proposed discussions on PECA, 2016. Progress on these discussions or whether they have occurred has yet to be reported.
While the information minister has claimed that the government has not registered any cases under PECA, 2016 against journalists, the track record for press freedom under the PDM government has been much the same as its predecessor PTI government. As opposition parties, each have claimed to be a defender of free speech and press freedom. Yet, once in power, little action towards ensuring media safety, reducing media regulation or tackling the culture of impunity in crimes against the media has been documented.
As the role of digital media and online platforms become increasingly relevant, media have come under attack online. In particular, the attacks against women journalists take on a gendered nature built upon the character assassination and personal attacks of women in the media.
This year the wife of late journalist Arshad Sharif and a journalist herself, Javeria Siddique, became the subject of an online trolling campaign. Siddique tweeted: “My husband was killed with a bullet. I will be killed through character assassination.”
With the successful passage of the federal Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Act 2021 and the provincial-level Sindh Protection of Journalists and Other Media Practitioners Act 2021, a legal recourse became available for media professionals under attack. Despite this, a lack of effective implementation of these laws undermines their use. The Sindh Commission for the Protection of Journalists and Other Media Practitioners was formed in November 2022. The Commission for the Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals is yet to be formed at the federal level.
While there remains uncertainty about the future of elections, the nature of attacks on the media during 2022-23 at political rallies and events, state-level regulation, arrests and case registration make evident the need for effective and clearly defined measures for media safety ahead of general elections.