Handling threats to media

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) this week released a special report on the state of media freedom in this country. The crux of which is summarised in the title: “Acts of Intimidation: In Pakistan, journalists’ fear and censorship grow even as fatal violence declines”.

As such, the findings do not throw up anything new for those working as part of the fourth estate. What it does provide, however, is a crucial and detailed overview for the new civilian set-up. All the while underscoring how a drop in the numbers of journalists killed in the line of duty is not, in reality, synonymous with a free media. Rather, it points to a double-edged sword.

Through extensive interviews with journalists in all the country’s major urban centres as well as Okara, the report traces the strangling of press freedom to two distinct events some four years ago. Firstly, in 2014, veteran journalist Hamid Mir suffered an assassination attempt. His brother would later publicly accuse the deep state of being behind the attack. Secondly, at the end of that year came the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) targeting of the Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar. This led to anti-terror operations. And while this resulted in some reprieve from militants that have long viewed the fourth estate as a ‘legitimate’ soft target — those charged with neutralising this threat soon became seen as posing a similar risk to media freedom through a campaign of intimidation and worse. Such practices were ‘aided’ by the Pakistan Protection Ordinance (PPO); providing for 90-day detention without charge.

The question boils down to this: who determines what constitutes anti-state activity as well as consensus on who may be a recognised target of this. As things currently stand, unbiased factual reporting has seemingly been falsely positioned as jeopardising national security concerns. Consequently, editors and news directors are now wont to opt for self-censorship in a bid to keep both they and their staff as safe as possible. Of course, nowhere in the world is the media left entirely to its own devices. And even where reporters adhere to established guidelines this does not safeguard them against being thrown in jail on trumped up allegations; as has been witnessed in Egypt, Turkey and India in recent times. But there is something amiss in a country where covering labour practices, especially in foreign-owned companies, is treated as insurrection.

The new government has still not fully woken up to these perils. Instead, it focuses on asking the fourth estate to afford it a three-month grace period before critiquing its performance. Or else, it pursues the merging of the respective regulatory authorities for print and electronic media into a single body. Whereas its most urgent priority ought, undoubtedly, to be protecting journalists while ensuring that the media as free as possible. Not least because the additional fear of blasphemy allegations is never far off for those deemed to have overstepped the mark. And then there is the matter of news outlets coming under double fire. That is, from militants on the one hand who threaten violent retribution if their statements and bloody acts are not extensively covered. To the security apparatus, on the other, which then accuses the fourth estate of glorifying extremism. This holds particularly true in restive areas such as Balochistan; where a separatist movement is being waged against the state.

The new set-up must therefore place journalist security centre stage. For without this, any talk of instituting independent editorial policies becomes little more than white noise.  *

Published in Daily Times, September 13th 2018.