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Freedom of Expression in Pakistan Continues to Face Challenges


Pakistani journalists rally on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day in Karachi, Pakistan, May 3, 2018.

Freedom of expression in Pakistan has continued to face challenges in the past year, says a report published by Freedom Network, a Pakistani media watchdog organization.

The report, Press Freedom Barometer 2018, published ahead of Thursday's observance of World Press Freedom Day, documents more than 150 violations against journalists and media groups in the country.

The 16-page report's violations include officially enforced censorship, written or verbal threats, killings, harassment, arrests, abductions, illegal confinements and physical assaults, conducted by state and nonstate actors and political and religious parties.

"At least 157 cases of attacks and violations were documented in Pakistan between May 1, 2017, and April 1, 2018, across all four provinces, Islamabad and tribal areas. That's an average of about 15 cases of violations a month," the report noted.

The executive director of Freedom Network, Iqbal Khattak, told VOA that despite a noticeable decline in overall terrorism in the country, journalism and journalists have remained vulnerable.

Pakistani journalists lay a wreath at a monument to pay tribute to journalists who lost their lives in the line of duty on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day at National Press Club in Islamabad, Pakistan, May 3, 2018.
Pakistani journalists lay a wreath at a monument to pay tribute to journalists who lost their lives in the line of duty on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day at National Press Club in Islamabad, Pakistan, May 3, 2018.

"There had been a significant decline in terrorism within the country, and we thought it will have a positive impact on journalism as well. But unfortunately that's not the case, and the situation of press freedom has deteriorated in Pakistan," Khattak told VOA.

There has been no response from the government.

Longtime, widespread problem

The report was compiled after collecting registered data across the country. It marked Islamabad as the "riskiest and most dangerous" city in which to practice journalism in Pakistan, with 35 percent of all cases (55 out of 157) reported in the capital during the past year.

Punjab province ranked second with 17 percent of the cases, Sindh with 16 percent and Baluchistan with 14 percent. Ten percent of the violations were noted in the restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Additionally, a semiautonomous tribal region bordering Afghanistan had 8 percent of the total registered cases.

Five journalists from different cities of Pakistan died in the line of duty, and 20 attacks were registered on media organizations last year. The report indicated TV journalists were more vulnerable than journalists belonging to other media such as print, social media or radio.

Pakistani Kashmiris stage a rally on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day outside the National Press Club in Islamabad, Pakistan, May 3, 2018. Protesters condemned killings of Indian Kashmiris and media black out by Indian authorities.
Pakistani Kashmiris stage a rally on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day outside the National Press Club in Islamabad, Pakistan, May 3, 2018. Protesters condemned killings of Indian Kashmiris and media black out by Indian authorities.

"This is the responsibility of the state and media houses to ensure the safety of journalists and that their rights are fully respected. Those who go out in the field to dig stories and bring facts to the nation should not be killed in the line of duty," said Rasul Baksh Raees, a political analyst from Pakistan.

Raees and others say the threat to journalists is nothing new, because they have always paid a price in Pakistan.

Independence jeopardized

Some experts believe the continued oppression against freedom of speech and expression has forced many media companies and journalists to self-censor.

"Journalists in Pakistan have surrendered to the continued oppression and have implemented self-censorship. They avoid reporting news and facts that may result in violence. This will have a serious and grave impact on investigative journalism in the country," Khattak said.

Mehdi Hasan, a Lahore-based media historian and current chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, echoed those concerns.

"Many newspapers and news channels are practicing self-censorship. That is a plague for freedom of expression and deprives people of their right to information," Hasan told VOA. He added that in its 70-year history, journalism in Pakistan has always faced pressure from state and nonstate circles.

Supporters of Pakistan's political party Tehreek-e-Insaf protest against curbing of freedom of expression through social media in Islamabad, Pakistan, May 22, 2017.
Supporters of Pakistan's political party Tehreek-e-Insaf protest against curbing of freedom of expression through social media in Islamabad, Pakistan, May 22, 2017.

While many analysts and media experts criticize the self-censorship and the suppression of free speech in the country, some also maintain that journalism in Pakistan has to re-evaluate the problems within itself and find a solution.

Soul searching

"I agree the findings of this report are disturbing and heartbreaking. Journalists should not have to live in an environment of fear. Those who go out to report events should not be killed, and no media group should be made to practice self-censorship," said Amir Ilyas Rana, a senior Islamabad-based journalist.

"However, I also believe that many so-called journalists who occupy TV screens during prime time have crossed their lines many times and are unaware of the intricacies of journalism. They invite problems by making false claims regarding different important institutions of the country. Uncontrolled freedom of speech is also not acceptable. This doesn't happen in Europe or the USA either," Rana added.

During the past few months, the Pakistani government and the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) have faced harsh criticism for blacking out coverage of a peaceful movement by ethnic Pashtuns, known as the PTM, against enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. The government is also accused of blocking the signal for Geo TV, Pakistan's most widely watched news channel, for more than a month.

"No coverage to PTM and to block Geo's transmission says a lot in itself. There is an unannounced censorship and it tells the freedom of speech is under pressure in Pakistan. Is there any solution to this? No one knows," Raees told VOA.

The government and PEMRA officials deny any involvement in blocking Geo's signal. Last month, PEMRA instructed cable operators to restore Geo to normal distribution or face the suspension of their licenses.

Muhammad Jaleel Akhtar of VOA's Urdu service contributed to this report from Islamabad.

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    Madeeha Anwar

    Madeeha Anwar is a multimedia journalist with Voice of America's Extremism Watch Desk in Washington where she primarily focuses on extremism in the South Asia region.

    Follow Madeeha on Twitter at @MadeehaAnwar

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