28 Oct, 2022
By Xari Jalil
Where the media in Pakistan is concerned, we have increasing pressures every year but it’s not isolated to us, because our colleagues also face the same pressures, said Arifa Noor, who was moderating the AJCONF session ‘Media under Siege in India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan’.
“Even globally media does also face pressures. South Asia has a mixed record,” she said.
The speakers stated that the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) must be abolished. They urged state leaders to accept that criticism is not something to suppress, but to be welcomed as a healthy sign of a vibrant democracy. The panel stated that there should be commitment to end impunity at the highest level, as the South Asia region is known to be hostile to dissent and has lost many journalists to state terror. Furthermore, collective trolling must be curbed because it is being used as a form of censorship, and that solidarity among journalists across South Asia to stand in full support of journalists who are harassed, arrested or killed is the need of the hour.
Pakistan: Hamid Mir
Renowned senior journalist Hamid Mir, who was banned twice in his illustrious career, as well as shot at, paid tribute to Asma Jahangir.
“We are all here due to her commitment for democracy and human rights,” he said. He pointed out how Steven Butler had been blacklisted only because he had written an article in Washington Post in 2019, criticizing the government’s ‘anti-media policies’ of the time. He mentioned how in Butler was stopped at the airport and deported when he was invited for the first time, while he was again detained for 8 hours at the Lahore airport until there was intervention.
“Last time that I spoke at this conference, I was banned for nine months,” said Mir. “Now that I am not banned, its not because the government has changed. The situation is still the same. Last time I was banned, this year there are some others who have been banned.”
Mir said that when he was banned, some people from the media justified it and said it was good that he was because he was ‘anti-Pakistan’.
“Those people who supported me being banned, are now banned themselves. Last year Asma Shirazi and I were facing cases of sedition and treason,” he said. “However I condemn the ban and the fake cases of treason and sedition faced by these journalists including Arshad Shareef, on Imran Riaz, and on Sabir Shakir.”
He said that the media was under pressure in any case, and as an example said that some people like Manzoor Pashteen could address a gathering but could not appear on television. So many leaders today claim that the media is now free unlike under Imran Khan regime, but if that was true, then why could Manzoor Pashteen or others like him not be called onto his show on TV, he questioned.
The World Press Freedom Index last year listed Pakistan as being on the 145th position. Today it is on 157. During the last four years Pakistan came down 18 points, while during this time, 24 Pakistani journalists including two female journalists were killed in the line of duty. Mir said that not even of these perpetrators were caught anywhere across the country.
No one explains why there are sedition charges on journalists, why Arshad Sharif and Sabir Shakir who were forced to leave the country, said Mir.
Mir said that only the government had changed, not the situation. The media in Pakistan was under strict censorship under former PM Imran Khan, and still is under current PM Shahbaz Sharif.
Even the situation in parliament was the same, said Mir. He pointed out how Senator Kamran Murtaza, President of the Supreme Court Bar Association, and Azam Nazeer Tarar, former Federal Law Minister, attempted to hold talks between the missing persons’ families and the Commission for Enforced Disappearances, with the families eventually stopping their sit-in of 50 long days.
Mir said that the families gave a list of 50 missing persons to them, requesting for them not to be killed in fake encounters.
“And what did they do?” asked an angry Mir. “They took out one of the people from the list – a young poet, killed him and dumped his body somewhere. They say they killed a ‘terrorist’ – but actually they have only slapped our parliamentary leaders very hard on the face.”
Mir said that it was a shameful act. “A terrorist is one who breaks the constitution of the country. If this poet was a terrorist, then what does that make those who killed him by violating the constitution? (You) are a terrorist in that case,” said Mir. “But this we cannot even say on TV. And those who do are also declared terrorists.”
He condemned both the governments of suppressing the media and censoring content, adding that there was not much difference between the two.
He demanded that state policies which were the reason why Pakistan was so low on the World Press Freedom Index, must be changed at once. Instead of being ashamed of the situation, the current government says that the media is now free unlike under former PM Imran Khan.
“Making Saleem Safi or Gharidah Farooqui the targets of harassment and character assassination, is a well-thought out strategy,” said Mir. “This is being used as a weapon to snatch away media freedom. Some state institutions are using fake news to subvert media freedom in Pakistan. They continue to spread disinformation against different journalists. State institutions clump us together and blame us for avoiding tax.”
Mir said that if people thought that martial law was impossible now in the country, it was wrong. “I have myself heard repeated references to martial law just two days ago,” he said. “But if this happens, it will push the country towards more damage as it has always done.
He added that Pakistan had some draconian laws but these were not imposed on the nation by a military dictator, but rather by democratic governments.
“In 2016, the PML-N government imposed the PECA law – a black law which is now being used on them,” he said. “Likewise the Imran Khan government brought in another amendment as an Ordinance under PECA law, and whenever FIA arrests a journalist or a politician they slap on this Section 20 of the law.
Hamid Mir demanded that there must be a resolution adopted at the AJCONF against such laws and that parliamentarians must serve their roles properly by thinking of the public, and not just ‘doing their jobs’. The judiciary should also rise against this, he said, because never in Pakistan’s history was there such a divided judiciary.
“When the judiciary is divided and the parliament is so weak, how do you expect media to be free?” he asked.
CPJ: Steven Butler
Journalist and Senior Program Consultant of CPJ, Steven Butler, thanked the AJCONF organizers for inviting him and the government for opening the door for him.
He set the record straight by clarifying what had happened at the airport when he flew to Lahore. He said that he had been given a visa and a welcome by the Ministry of Interior, but the FIA which controls emigration did not get word that he was to be allowed inside of the country. “I would like to clarify they were very kind to me throughout the eight hours I had to wait for red-tape. However I truly regret what happened in 2019 and how I was made to turn back which was very inconvenient.”
Butler said that this had ended the long and open communication that CPJ had with the government. “We had for years sent delegations to Pakistan to meet with senior officials of the country including the President and Prime Minister. We tell them what we think and they listen to us and then they tell us what they think. That was a very healthy process which was brought to an end.”
CPJ forms a network which supports press freedom everywhere, said Butler. He admitted to being harshly critical of Pakistan with regard to press freedom, but it was not a unique situation.
Iran, India, China, are all on the list, he said. “We are not anti-Pakistan, neither were we for nor against any specific government; we are not against any intelligence services, the military or anything else, but we are for journalists. We want to see them work without fear of retaliation.”
Butler said that that as he was turned back it could have been the sign of the times. Two colleagues visiting Tanzania were interrogated, their equipment seized.
“These are the first two incidents in the history of CPJ where me and my colleagues were treated with such hostility by the host countries,” revealed Butler. He said that we were witnessing a worldwide decline of press freedom including in the United States. (A shocking 630 assaults of journalists alone took place in 2020 in the US.)
“This year in Mexico 13 journalists were killed. In Ukraine 15 journalists have died; in Haiti five journalists have been killed. In the Philippines four have been killed. In Iran 41 have been imprisoned. In Myanmar 51 journalists have been jailed. China is up there too. There are also a large number of journalists in Vietnam, Turkey and Egypt. In Afghanistan the media is under tremendous pressure and is a mere shadow of what it used to be prior to August 15. And in India the press is under pressure as well – look at Kashmir. It is shameful that journalists are arrested, bailed and re-arrested, so they never get out of jail.”
Butler said that Pakistan could rebuild itself using the determination, bravery, talent among journalists. “There is high quality journalism and rebuild what pressure it has come under.”