Press Freedom in Pakistan 2022: A flurry of cases, a high-profile murder and political rhetoric targeting the media.
In a country where the press routinely remains under threat and faces attacks from many fronts, the media in Pakistan operated on slippery grounds in 2022 with a flurry of cases against journalists, television channel closures, charged political rhetoric enabling attacks against the media, overreach by media regulatory bodies and the killing of two journalists, including he brutal murder of one journalist on foreign soil that shook the nation.
These are the main conclusions of the report released by Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) titled “Press Freedom in Pakistan 2022: A flurry of cases, a high-profile murder and political rhetoric targeting the media.”
On October 24, news broke of senior journalist Arshad Sharif’s death in Kenya. Initially there were varying accounts of what had taken place with the Kenyan media reporting that Sharif’s death had occurred when he was shot dead in a car due to a case of “mistaken identity”. An investigation into the death was launched and the fact-finding team in its report, shared in December, found that Sharif’s death was a “case of planned targeted assassination”.
While there is a lot further to be uncovered regarding Sharif’s death and those responsible for it, the factors that led to his departure from Pakistan and his eventual murder establish a strong connection to his work. After cases were registered against him and there were reports of harassment by the FIA, Sharif in August left Pakistan. ARY News had decided to part ways with Sharif. He was in Kenya at the time of his murder.
Sharif’s ordeal from the registration of cases and his eventual decision to leave Pakistan are reflective of the environment of fear that the media has operated in Pakistan. Journalists are made the subject of cases including sedition charges which not only poses a legal challenge but also impacts their employability with media houses who operate with caution so as to not upset those in power.
This method of harassing journalists is not new and has been employed previously as well against journalists resulting in removal from air, abductions, attacks and a general environment of fear and self-censorship.
In 2022, Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) has recorded 2 deaths of journalists in connection to their work, at least 30 different instances of physical assault of media professionals, 2 raids at houses of media professionals and an attack on a press club, at least 12 instances of threats being issued as well as online attacks taking on a gendered nature with attacks on women journalists, at least 10 arrests in connection with their work and case registration against at least 9 different media professionals.
Beyond the direct attacks on media professionals, the role of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) and the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has painted a picture of a media operating within strict and shrinking red lines.
Throughout the year, PEMRA issued directives banning entire topics of coverage which has deprived the public of vital information and made the work of journalists a lot more challenging. This included a directive banning live speeches by former prime minister Imran Khan. PEMRA also temporarily suspended the broadcast of ARY News and Bol News in September.
The FIA has been at the heart of many of the cases registered against media professionals and also initiated inquiries against others. It was during the course of this year that the investigative agency was restrained by a high court to stop harassing a journalist Arshad Sharif, which is reflective of their overreach and the harassment journalists have faced at the hands of state bodies.
During 2022, political transition and a packed year of political developments appeared to impact the work of the media. Cases were registered and arrests of journalists took place. In one such instance, on July 5, then Express News anchorperson Imran Riaz Khan was arrested. According to his legal counsel, as many as 17 treason cases had been registered against Khan.
More directly related to the political upheaval, protests including the long march by the the political party Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), after their removal from the federal government, led to widespread acts of violence against media covering the event. At least six different instances of violence were recorded against the media during PTI rallies in May.
In the most heartbreaking was that a women journalist, Sadaf Naeem, a reporter of Channel 5 television, was killed after she was run over by the container transporting PTI leader Imran Khan. This incident is a tragic reminder of the lack of safety procedures training provided to the media workers. It also serves as a reminder for the need for safety legislation to be implemented and made effective so that the basic safety of journalists while on the field can be safeguarded.
Political parties and their heads proved to be a source of instigating violence against the media. With the country at a peak of political polarization, rhetoric led by political parties made evident with the polarization of the media.
Imran Khan while still the prime minister labeled members of the media to be mafia and blackmailers. He continues to use defamatory language against the media and recently highlighted the sexist nature of attacks against women journalists when he implied Gharidah Farooqi was asking for harassment by entering male spaces.
Despite a new government at the helm of the Pakistan Democratic Movement led by the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz, little improvement has been seen in the state of press freedom. The new government came to power with big promises of accepting criticism and ensuring media freedom but the continued attacks on the media currently in Pakistan paint a different picture of the reality.