“The protests [over press freedom] do little to move the government and the perpetrators are hardly ever punished. Any measures announced by the authorities to protect the media in the immediate aftermath of each attack are only cosmetic.”
In 2016 Pakistan moved up from 159th place to 147th in the World Press Freedom Index, created annually by Reporters Without Borders. Despite this mark of improvement, institutions within the country’s media were attacked six times this year. These attacks have raised questions about press freedom in Pakistan, forcing journalists to voice their concerns about the lack of support and protection from authorities.
The same news organisation was attacked in January when gunmen hurled grenades at its office in Islamabad and fired shots.
Four attacks alone this year
JournalismPakistan.com told the IPF that there have been four attacks against news organisations in Pakistan in 2016 alone, as well as two attacks against press associations. With journalists being threatened by government armed forces and various military groups, they have decided to join forces to protest the lack of press freedom and protection.
The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) protests across the country have been in vain—said Imran Naeem Ahmad, editor and publisher for JournalismPakistan.com.
“The protests do little to move the government and the perpetrators are hardly ever punished. Any measures announced by the authorities to protect the media in the immediate aftermath of each attack are only cosmetic.”
Many journalists have turned to self-censorship for security and from fear of retaliation—especially from the military, certain militant groups and political parties.
“Reporting on the militant groups like the Taliban, the military, sensitive religious issues like blasphemy laws, the Balochistan province and FATA, can land journalists and their news organisations in trouble.”
“This could come in the shape of attacks, threats, kidnapping and harassment,” Imran said.
He added that even though English print media still ran somewhat critical articles, they were “wary of where to draw the line”.
Press freedom remains fragile and undemocratic
Upon first glance Pakistan appears to have a thriving media industry with more than 100 TV channels — 40 of them covering mainly news — and 2,000 dailies, weeklies and monthlies. Despite this, freedom of expression remains fragile and undemocratic.
Kiran Nazish, an independent journalist covering South Asia and the Middle East, said the military has complete control over much of the government and media.
“When you’re covering war zones, threats are visible, so you don’t cross the definite lines,” she said.
“The problem with Pakistan is that you don’t know those boundaries, they are not defined, [but] the fact that you’re just covering a story could be dangerous.”
Currently based abroad, Kiran has received death threats—from just going near Baluchistan and northern areas bordering Afghanistan.
“There are places you can’t go to, even if you’re a civilian,” Kiran explained. “The establishment does not want activists and journalists to report and therefore limits access to certain areas.”
Because of this there is no investigative journalism left in Pakistan or basic reporting on health and education, especially in areas which are particularly hard to access.
Sexism remains a factor in the field
For Kiran one of the advantages of working as a female journalist in Pakistan was the ability to access stories her male colleagues couldn’t approach as successfully.
“People feel more comfortable talking to women, especially refugees,” she said. “I could easily wear a burqa when interviewing tribal people escaping the Taliban.”
But challenges remain, like sexual harassment from sources and authorities.
“Whenever someone wants to threaten you, your gender comes to play. That can be upsetting and stressful.”
“Compared to western countries, Pakistan is behind in understanding what to do with harassment. The conversations are only superficial,” Kiran said.
On top of that, journalists in Pakistan don’t have the opportunity to receive proper training in terms of security—both online and out on the field.
“The initial years when you’re facing threats can be stressful. In countries like Pakistan, Egypt and Mexico there is no support system when [someone is] attacked online. People in the journalist community haven’t opened up to discussing the issues,” Kiran explained.
Upcoming risks for Pakistani journalists
Another element that could affect journalists’ and activists’ safety is the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill. This bill was passed on 11 August and is being “seen as a measure to curb freedom of expression.”
The bill, which was passed by the Pakistani Senate, would give state regulators the power to censor online content that is seen as a threat to the nation’s stability and security. Penalties under this law include fines and a prison sentence of three years.
Imran said: “Despite widespread criticism over many objectionable provisions in the law, it now just awaits the president’s signature.”