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Journalists' killings mount amid declining freedoms in Pakistan

Locals attend funeral prayers for journalist Khalil Jibran on June 19, 2024, in Khyber district, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan. Unidentified gunmen shot and killed Jibran on June 18, 2024. (Photo courtesy Aman Ali)
Locals attend funeral prayers for journalist Khalil Jibran on June 19, 2024, in Khyber district, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan. Unidentified gunmen shot and killed Jibran on June 18, 2024. (Photo courtesy Aman Ali)

As Pakistan this week celebrated Eid al-Adha — the festival coinciding with the Hajj pilgrimage — journalists in the country mourned the loss of yet another colleague.

On Tuesday night, unidentified gunmen killed Khalil Jibran and injured a lawyer accompanying him in the Khyber tribal district of the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Reports indicate the journalist was on his way home with friends when the attackers ambushed his car.

Authorities said Jibran's bullet-riddled body showed signs that he might have had a physical altercation with his attackers at the crime scene before being killed.

This was at least the sixth killing of a journalist in Pakistan this year. Four media members were killed just in May.

"It makes me feel miserable and insecure, and unsafe," said veteran Pakistani journalist Absar Alam, who survived an assassination attempt in April 2021 in the nation's capital, Islamabad.

'An alarming deterioration'

The first three months under Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif have been marred by "an alarming deterioration in press freedom," according to Reporters Without Borders.

Listing the attacks on journalists and a raft of government measures, Reporters Without Borders, known by its French acronym RSF, recently urged Sharif's coalition government to uphold its commitment to media freedom.

"The many press freedom violations reveal a climate of violence and a determination to censor that has little in common with the undertakings given by the political parties in their election campaign manifestos, and the message of support for journalists by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif," said Celia Mercier, head of RSF's South Asia desk.

The organization ranks Pakistan very low — 152nd out of 180 countries in its global press freedom index, in which 1 is the best.

"Space for true journalism has reduced in Pakistan. It's toxic. It's unsafe. There are all kinds of actors — state actors, nonstate actors — who are making our space more limited," said Alam.

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Electronic curbs

The latest step that could further limit space for journalism and access to information may be the implementation of a national firewall to filter any online content authorities deem inappropriate.

In a January interview with a news channel, Pakistan's then-interim prime minister, Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, announced the measure.

"Very soon a national firewall will be deployed," Kakar said.

A high-ranking government official recently confirmed to VOA Urdu that Sharif government authorities were working to deploy that nationwide online censorship tool, although the government has not issued a formal statement about it.

This follows the mid-February suspension of the X social media platform, formerly Twitter, on orders of Pakistan's Ministry of Interior.

Speaking to VOA, the ministry spokesperson said he did not have information about the national firewall.

"It is not the domain of the Interior Ministry," said Qadir Yar Tiwana, adding that just because the ministry banned X, it could not be held responsible for all similar measures.

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, the country's independent telecom regulator, and the Ministry of Information Technology – two offices Tiwana said would be responsible for implementing any firewall — did not respond to VOA requests for comment.

Minister for Information Attaullah Tarar received VOA's query about the firewall but did not share a response in time for the publication of this story. At a recent press conference, however, Tarar dismissed the suggestion that Pakistan discussed acquiring the firewall from China during Sharif's recent visit there.

Sadaf Khan, co-founder of the nonprofit Media Matters for Democracy, told VOA the lack of information about the firewall was adding to fears of further decline in media freedom and privacy in the country.

"There is no clarity on what this firewall is [or] how invasive it is. Is it surveilling data? Is there an encryption blockage?" Khan said. "If there is a bit of digital literacy, if people are smart about it, they will still be able to access the information that they need. However, obviously, it does increase the chance for surveillance. There might just be a chilling effect. This kind of ambiguity creates a lot of fear."

Legislative curbs

Government efforts to curb what it considers fake news and propaganda online have compounded fears of declining freedoms of information and expression.

In May, the federal government created the National Cyber Crimes Investigation Agency under the controversial Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act. Despite the existence of the Federal Investigation Agency's Cybercrimes Cell, Tarar said in a press conference that "there was a call for a specific authority to address the issue of online harassment."

Critics say it is unclear how broad the new agency's powers will be or what its impact on privacy and online freedom might look like.

Later that same month, the government in Punjab province, where Sharif's niece Maryam Nawaz is the chief minister, enacted what was called an anti-defamation law. Media and civil society condemned the law for protecting state institutions from scrutiny and requiring no proof of damage for filing a defamation lawsuit. The law is currently being challenged in the Lahore High Court.

Alam, the veteran Pakistani journalist who served as the chairman of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority from 2015 to 2017, said some of the state's concerns regarding fake news are not unfounded.

"It's not only the state that suffers from fake news and irresponsible journalism," Alam said, pointing to cases where Pakistani citizens won defamation lawsuits in Britain for content broadcast there by Pakistani channels.

Given Britain's tough laws, Alam said, Pakistani news channels now often refrain from airing potentially defamatory content in the United Kingdom but still show it in Pakistan.

Still, he acknowledged, strict laws in Pakistan are often used as a tool to target journalists.

"Past history tells that all governments have been using such laws against journalism, not against fake news spreaders," Alam said.

Awaiting justice

Media watchdogs regard Pakistan as a dangerous country for journalists. Most cases of journalists targeted for their work remain unresolved.

On Thursday, journalists in several towns across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa protested Jibran's killing. The day before, locals, journalists and civil society activists protested with Jibran's shrouded remains, temporarily blocking a highway that runs to the border with Afghanistan.

Although Sharif condemned the killing, Alam is not optimistic that justice will be served anytime soon.

"Successive governments in the last many years have not apprehended the culprits who attacked journalists," said Alam, whose attackers and their financiers are out on bail or have disappeared. "So, I think the statement by the prime minister may be part of the verbal support to journalists but, practically speaking, the problem is in our culture."