June 2nd, 2021
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has put out a detailed policy brief discussing a diverse set of issues faced by working journalists in Pakistan. The report is based on a series of focus group discussions with reporters, producers, and editors from the broadcast, print and digital media carried out by the organization in November last year.
“We carried out these discussions on six sites namely Lahore, Multan, Karachi, Quetta, Peshawar, and Islamabad. These focus groups included journalists from across the media spectrum,” explains Maheen Paracha, in charge of external communications at the HRCP.
The policy brief reaffirms that Pakistani journalists are operating in an environment of almost unprecedented censorship and that media workers who dare to speak out against the official state narrative are subjected to ‘punishment’ both officially and unofficially. All those who were interviewed for the purpose of this study expressed these sentiments across the board. One of thoe most clear indications of the threats that are faced by journalists is the fact that “138 journalists lost their lives in the line of duty between 1990 and 2020.”
According to the study, the current regime in particular and in general, the structure of the state, has and continues to use draconian legislations like the PECA law to target journalists’ right to free speech, highlighting the legal actions initiated by the FIA against the Islamabad based journalist Asad Ali Toor as a case study of how these legal processes are exploited to target journalists. For this reason, the organization demands that the PECA law be abolished and regulatory bodies like the PEMRA be freed from government interference and be allowed to operate autonomously as mandated by the law.
Another tool of censorship identified by the organization is the current advertisement regime and the rating system. According to the report, ‘anchors who criticize the role of the establishment in politics and the governance issues of the ruling government receive low ratings and are eventually dismissed from their jobs.’ Similarly, media owners are also accused of pressurizing their employees, either because of their own vested interests or because of external stakeholders. All of these factors combine to create an environment whereby individual journalists are forced to self-censor to protect their livelihoods.
The report highlights the case of ‘Irshad Mastoi, bureau chief of Online News and secretary of the Balochistan Union of Journalists who was killed along with reporter Abdur Rasool and accountant Mohammad Yunis in Quetta in August 2014 when an armed person barged into their office and fired at them in a savage frenzy, killing the three men on the spot,’ to assert the immense barriers to free speech faced by journalists operating in conflict-hit areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. Demanding that the authorities ensure that violent crimes against journalists are properly investigated and prosecuted to end the environment of impunity for people who carry out such attacks.
Many participants of the study claimed that ‘The fear of redundancy compels many journalists to work on drastically shrunk salary packages—in cases, up to 40 percent cuts—or accept sporadic delays in salaries, which can be up to three months,’ pointing towards job insecurity and ridiculously low pay grades as another reason behind the self-censorship exercised by the media workers.
The report also challenges the complete lack of representation of women and other religious and ethnic minorities in the media workforce as one of the major reasons behind the biases exercised by the Pakistani media.
Though the report is majorly based on the external factors pushing the Pakistani media to the brink of collapse, a conversation with the researchers who carried out the discussions reveals that several internal factors also work to weaken the media workers’ community at large. According to Maheen Paracha during the interviews, many media workers were grossly dissatisfied with the role media unions and associations are playing in this regard. “The reporters who attended our FGD in Lahore and Islamabad (especially those working for digital media) said that their concerns were not always taken up by journalists’ unions. The unions themselves are fragmented. There is no one collective body.”