It’s extremely painful to pen this piece, as I got the news of the untimely demise of a senior colleague, and a top Pakistani investigative journalist, Arshad Sharif, who was shot dead on Sunday night in Kenya, while the actual details of the assassination are yet to be investigated as the case unfolds in next few days. The Kenyan police deemed it an incident of shooting which turned out to be a case of “mistaken identity”, which seems quite absurd, raising many questions about the credibility of the police’s official statement. Growing pressure and a series of life threats were given to Sharif and his family for being fierce critics of the incumbent government and the country’s military establishment. Therefore, in pursuance of freedom of expression, he decided to flee Pakistan earlier this year after sedition cases were registered against him.
The cases of intimidation and violence I’ve shared today are just a few that we all know about. Every day, there are multiple incidents of attacks on journalists carried out in different parts of the world, many of which never made the news headlines. In many countries, fear of reprisal is hovering over the journalists. That’s why stories are brushed under the carpet, and criminal acts are disguised. This is a perilous moment for journalism, and to be a journalist in a country where it is needed the most
Over the last few years, respect for journalists and their freedom of expression has dramatically dropped to a new low. There is a relentless campaign to target them because of the fundamental role they play in keeping our society informed. Around the globe, journalists are barred from revealing uncomfortable truths and holding leaders accountable for their actions in the eyes of the public, attracting governments’ violent efforts to discredit their work and sometimes silence them for life. There is a constant fear of persecution and life threats to the lives of brave and outspoken journalists like Sharif, who pose awkward questions to the political elites at risk. Statistics and reports on press freedom reveal a grim reality of Pakistan’s censorship of content, where I have seen and experienced how fantastic journalistic pieces are deleted, and authors are warned not to write on topics conflicting with companies’ interests.
Journalists critical of the government are facing a series of attacks, as recently Sami Ibrahim, another top anchor of Pakistan’s largest media group, was assaulted by unidentified assailants in front of his office. I feel demotivated to pursue journalism, ever since I have witnessed people being punished for uttering simple truths, jailed, or harassed for publicly asking questions, and finally imprisoned for questioning the state institutions, leaving no room for creativity. I am aware of this reality because my colleagues have faced this.
The press is foundational to ensure a healthy democracy and is also a method of oversight to keep our leaders honest. It empowers the public to elect the best leader for the country by providing the necessary information that helps us in forming an opinion for and against a political leader. But around the world, the pressure and threats journalists are facing are getting serious, as Jamal Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered by unknown assassins in 2018. And a Russian journalist, Maksim Borodin, committed suicide from the balcony of his apartment the same year, after disclosing Kremlin’s covert operation in Syria. Most recently, this May, Shireen Abu Akleh, a well-known Al Jazeera journalist, was killed by an Israeli soldier while covering Israeli military raids in the occupied West Bank of Palestine.
I believe, the hard work of journalism is at high risk, especially in Third-World countries where freedom of expression is not considered a blessing but a sin. We also know how senior journalists from Imran Khan Riaz, Sabir Shakir to Arshad Sharif have long faced serious obstacles to their dissent, including intimidation and arbitrary arrest for being critical of the state institution.
The cases of intimidation and violence I’ve shared today are just a few that we all know about. Every day, there are multiple incidents of attacks on journalists carried out in different parts of the world, many of which never made the news headlines. In many countries, fear of reprisal is hovering over the journalists. That’s why stories are brushed under the carpet, and criminal acts are disguised. This is a perilous moment for journalism, and to be a journalist in a country where it is needed the most.
John F Kennedy said, “the free press is invaluable, without debate, without criticism, because no administration, no country can succeed, and no republic can survive.” Therefore, in the face of mounting pressure, the true power of a free press is to keep citizens informed and continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, without fear or favour.