ISLAMABAD: The media in the country is passing through a tough time. The powers-that-be are influencing the news agenda of media outlets. The violators are penalised – TV channels are pushed towards the end of the list through cable operators and newspapers’ circulation is stopped through intimidation and harassment of hawkers. These are the findings of a Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) team compiled in Curbs on Freedom of Expression report shared shared with the public on Wednesday. Speaking on the occasion, veteran rights activist IA Rehman noted that enemies of freedom of expression were actively hounding media outlets not toeing the line dictated to them. “They are dictating what newspaper will be read and what TV programme will be watched,” he said, adding that there had been instances where TV crews have received calls from unknown numbers interferring in editorial decisions. “They are taking the power of speaking and thinking from the people to pursue their own agenda. They are well-resourced and well-equipped, while on the other hand, media professionals and the society is divided,” IA Rehman noted. Former Senator from the Awami National Party (ANP), Afrasiab Khattak said that the powers-that-be earlier pressurised media houses and were now going after journalists who are facing harassment on social media platforms from unidentified accounts. He mentioned the harassment suffered by Saleem Safi and Asma Shirazi as just the most recent of such instances. Khattak said independent media was the mother of all democratic institutions, adding that strengthening of democracy would remain a pipedream without ensuring freedom of expression. He urged the public to come forward and participate in the struggle against curbs on press freedom. Former senator from the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Farhatullah Babur said that every Pakistani had the right to express their opinions and ask questions of those holding powerful positions in state institutions. He said former army chief General Jehangir Karamat’s statement was on the record in which he admitted that the security establishment wished to set the agenda of civil-military ties in the country on its terms. Sharing findings of the HRCP researchers, journalist Marvi Sirmed referred to the case of five senior journalists who received threat alarms from the National Counter Terrorism Authority (Nacta), telling them that militant organisations from across the border could target them. When the HRCP team approached them, however, it learnt that these journalists had never reported on militancy, or discussed it in their work. They told the team that their recent work had been about policies of powerful unelected state institutions but they were receiving threatening calls from terrorist organisations. She also shared the details of an interveiw with a journalist who suffered online harassment after a report on the 18th amendment to the Constitution. On a question about the Inter-Services Public Relations director general’s claim on Twitter that a specific media house was indulging in propaganda, Khattak said that such statements from the spokesperson of a premier state institution did not bode well for the independence of media and freedom of expression. On a question, IA Rehman acknowledged that media, political parties and civil society were divided but insisted that on the broader question of democracy, there was no option but to forge unity among the ranks to defend democracy in the country. Following the session, the HRCP released a statement urging the government to promptly address constraints on press freedom to establish its democratic credentials. “The new government must uphold freedom of expression across print and broadcast media to establish its democratic credentials. Its commitment to ensuring that all state-run media have complete editorial independence is an important and welcome step, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. The government has inherited a difficult situation vis-à-vis curbs on press freedom, but having done so, it must now acknowledge and take responsibility for the actions of all state institutions and services in this context. This means investigating allegations of continued unlawful interference with newspaper distribution among private media organisations, notably Dawn. It will also entail monitoring press freedom announced for state-run media to see if it extends to areas that the security establishment had set out of bounds for the press, such as those where the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement is active,” said the statement. The report said that there was overwhelming evidence that corroborated reports of systematic, strategic intimidation and harassment of journalists and social media activists – to the point that an increasing number of media persons feel compelled to practice self-censorship at the expense of professional, objective journalism. “There appears to be little compunction about intimidation of journalists and their families, subjecting them to vicious character assassinations through social media and creating fear through reprisals in the shape of abductions and physical attacks. Moreover, an arbitrary media blackout of ‘sensitive’ areas, notably North and South Waziristan, does not point to a ‘free’ or ‘independent’ media.” The statement urged the federal and provincial governments and all state institutions to take appropriate steps to prohibit and prevent unauthorised, illegal interference with freedom of expression in the country. “There should be no interference in the sale and distribution of any newspaper, nor should any TV channels be deliberately displaced. The system of issuing ‘press advice’ on the part of state agencies must cease immediately and the complaints documented in HRCP’s report redressed. The state must also set up complete and effective information commissions in each province to implement its obligations under the Right of Access to Information Act 2017.” Published in Daily Times, August 30th 2018.