May 3rd, 2021
By Shahid Afzal Khan
Whether it is a democratic government or a military dictatorship, in Pakistan the media faces its own challenges.
More recently in the political game, since 2007, the country has been continuously undergoing transfers of power from one civilian government to another without facing any visible or apparent interruption from the military junta. But for the media, the situation has not differed much. Like always, tgere have been continuous attempts made to muzzle it.
Last year in 2020 when the court intervened in journalist Matiullah Jan’s abduction case and several assurances were given by Prime Minister Imran khan, many had hopes that this would be a new beginning of media freedom. Unfortunately, such expectations have rarely been met in the country where media freedom is still a far cry.
At the start of this year, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) ended the broadcast of its popular show ‘Sairbeen‘ –a current affairs program – that had been running since 2014 on Aaj TV.
Over the years, the show had been taken off air several times but for a few days only. This time, it seems the show has been taken off air permanently as it has not been back since then. As alleged by the BBC, there were constant interferences in its program that led to taking the program off-air. “We experienced interferences in our news bulletins since October 2020 and gave Aaj TV ample time to return the program to air,” read a statement from the director of World Service Group, Jamie Angus.
The Voice of America (VOA) which runs a similar program on the same news channel has also complained about occasional censorship on its programs without any prior notice. It is interesting to note that the online news agency site has been banned in the country since 2018.
Not just international sites but local media and journalists have been victims of censorship too.
Current affairs show host, Adnan Haider was sacked from his job because of the remarks made by a guest journalist, Imran Khan. Journalist Imran Khan on the show exposed an alleged land grabber who is presumably a relative of a “powerful personality”. But later, due to the constant protest by journalist unions throughout the country, the anchor’s position was restored.
Not only is media pressed by state operatives, it also faces the wrath of powerful groups and political parties who try to subjugate it for their vested interests.
Recently, a report ‘Pakistan Freedom of Expression Report 2020’ was published by an Islamabad-based non-profit organization namely Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD). The report states that Pakistan performed miserably in the last year in all areas that fall within the ambit of free speech.
The country was at 30 out of 100 on the Freedom of Expression Assessment Index, which underlines that the state of freedom of expression remained poor in the country over the past 12 months.
The report found that at least eight individuals connected with media were killed, at least 36 journalists were attacked in the line of duty, 10 were arrested, and as many as 23 instances of arbitrary detentions in connection with news reporting and online expression were recorded across Pakistan during the year.
As per the report published by RSF (Reporters Sans Frontieres) in 2020, Pakistan ranks 145 on the press freedom index.
Social media harassment of journalists who are vocal is another dimension of trials and tribulations media goes through in the country. Personal attacks, slur, memes, calling names and charges of sedition are what journalists face at the behest of political parties and powerful democratic and non-democratic forces.
The remarks made by Justice Qazi Faiz Isa, during his own proceedings at court corroborate the poor state of freedom of speech. The senior judge said he wouldn’t shy away from saying that the media is not free and that it was being controlled, while real journalists being thrown out of the country.
“Tell me. Is media free in Pakistan?” Justice Isa asked Attorney-General Khalid Javed Khan. The attorney-general requested the judge to give an option of answering other than a yes or no, to which Justice Isa offered that a referendum should be held among media persons present in the courtroom. He said media personnel in the court should raise their hands if they think the media is free. The court full of media persons saw no hands brandishing in the air.
Asad Toor, a former producer at Samma news, when approached for the interview termed the current undeclared censorship and pressure on media as unprecedented. Toor who started his career during the era of military dictator General Pervez Musharaf, was of the view that the undeclared censorship is worse than what Zia’s regime used to exercise.