- The government is unwilling to take any criticism
Freedom of the press continued to deteriorate in this past year amid increased direct censorship, self-censorship and state-sponsored hostility towards working journalists. This was highlighted in CPNE’s (Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors) report on media freedom 2019. According to the report 7 journalists were killed and 15 were injured in the line of duty. It falls upon media owners to ensure a safe working environment for working journalists. The report adds that at least 60 persons from the media were charged under the ATA (Anti-Terrorism Act), which is a worryingly high figure, indicating towards the misuse of laws to shut down dissenting voices. 2019 also marked the first time a journalist, Nasrullah Khan, was jailed for allegedly being in possession of ‘banned material’. This sets a bad precedent that could lead to more arrests and convictions of journalists who are already working in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Attempts were made by the PTI government to give legal cover to media censorship through the formation of ‘Special Tribunals’ that would act as media courts. Fortunately the collective rejection and outrage from the entire journalist community forced the government to drop the idea. At one point, an overactive PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) issued directives restricting anchors to appear as analysts on other TV talk shows, an order that it had to retract later due to severe backlash. If indeed the government, as it had promised, was delivering in terms of governance, it would not have to enforce such ridiculous controls on the media to restrict reportage on its performance.
Most of the credit for the systematic erosion of freedom of speech guaranteed under Article 19 of the constitution goes to the PTI government. The disdain for the media begins at the very top with Prime Minister Imran Khan unable to absorb any sort of criticism, constantly complaining about how the press is unfair to his government and that there is a ‘mafia in newspapers’ occupied by ‘journalists who benefitted from the corruption of past government’s’. Unless PM Imran Khan provides some specific names, his allegations are just convenient generalizations and baseless ranting. While in the opposition for his ’20-year struggle in politics’ it was the same media that kept him and his party relevant, especially during the dharna days and the Panama Papers Case that he essentially spearheaded. Democracy cannot progress in the absence of a free and vibrant press. If the government and its sponsors are truly interested in such progress, they should let the media operate independently rather than try to control it.