The right to inform
As has been since 1983, Unesco’s World Press Freedom Day was observed globally on May 3. The theme this year was: ‘Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice and the Rule of Law’. Press freedom remains a problem in nations around the globe, with 81 journalists killed in 2017 according to the International Federation of Journalists. Mexico was seen as the most dangerous country for journalists, followed by Afghanistan and Iraq. In Pakistan, the press and media has lived with a growing danger for the past two decades. Since 1992, 90 journalists have been killed in the country. In 2017, four journalists were murdered in Pakistan. But a far larger number faced harassment, attack and threat. According to Freedom Network, a group set up to monitor the media in the country, there were 157 attacks on journalists, 55 of them in Islamabad alone. Tribal journalists are seen to be particularly vulnerable. As several publications have reported, threats to the media come from all kinds of quarters, and in a different fashion to those faced before in a country familiar with both censorship and self-censorship. This has limited space for the expression of opinion. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, in a press release to mark the occasion, has also warned of the dangers inherent in this, especially as the time for a new election draws nearer.
A free press is vital to the healthy functioning of any democracy but here the concept of freedom of the media exists more in the abstract than in reality. While constitutional protections exist to protect our freedom of speech, these rights are often violated. In the past, Pakistan’s media has bravely carried on in times of hardship. The inability now of unions of press workers to organise has somewhat damaged this. There was a time when journalists had led the struggle against attempts at censorship, many ending up in jail or, during the period of Gen Ziaul Haq, facing punishments that included flogging. In 2007, journalists joined lawyers and students to protest emergency measures – which included checks on media freedoms – imposed by General Pervez Musharraf.
One deterrent today is the growing division between political parties and their absolute reluctance to join forces. No opposition party has spoken out for the constitutionally guarded right to free expression. Political leaders need to explain what prevents them from guarding the rights of all people to have open access to information, to hear varied opinions and enjoy the right to know. As is the case in other nations around the world, notably those ruled by oppressive regimes, this right has been taken away from people. The end result is a shackled media whose ability to inform is severely curtailed. This denial of the right to information also automatically taints democracy at all levels, and allows only one narrative to gain legitimacy without challenge. Days like World Press Freedom Day remind us that whenever press freedoms are restricted, social frustration grows rapidly. Restricting public debate serves the interests only of entrenched powers. Our brave journalists risk their lives daily bring us stories that matter. For them to be silenced deprives us all of our rights.