For once, Pakistan’s slipping down a place on a global ranking index is, if not reason for celebration, at least a sign that things are moving in the right direction. No journalist was murdered in the country during the last year, a first since 2001. Thus Pakistan is now the world’s fourth most dangerous country for journalists.
Clearly much, much more needs to be done. Towards this end, the Information minister has announced that preparations for the Journalist Protection Bill 2017 are firmly underway. This follows pressure from international organisations that last year called for the drawing up of protective legislation for working journalists, while also safeguarding the right to information. Such legislation must extend to online journalists, bloggers, camerapersons, technical staff and social media activists. Though inclusion of the latter remains highly doubtful. This government is hellbent on policing social media, including seeking the extradition of Pakistani users from anywhere in the world. Legislation must also extend to support staff, such as drivers and guards employed by media outlets.
Equally important is the principle of media freedom. Self-censorship has become a daily reality for most of this country’s journalists, which may go some way to explaining the ‘no deaths’ reported in 2016. Self-censorship in Pakistan, however, goes beyond this. Many private media outlets are too ready to hold off on running news pieces or airing footage that go against the interests of their most important clients — the advertisers. Ten years ago, when a bomb went off at a local five-star hotel in Islamabad, only one media outlet dared name it. Within minutes this was withdrawn. Surprisingly, even the foreign wire services held off for a few days. The order, so the story goes, came from the top. Gen Musharraf reportedly issued the no-name order. He enjoyed a close personal friendship with the owner and didn’t wish media coverage of the terror attack to negatively impact business. Pakistan’s underfunded media complied. It couldn’t afford not to.
It is time that international media watchdogs link such practices to media freedom rankings. For the notion of an independent media is quite different to that of a corporate media. In the case of the latter, the media reneges on its first and foremost obligation: of being a public information service. And in doings so surrenders its right to the title of society’s fourth pillar. *