Two journalists die of corona virus in Pakistan,more than 40 tested positive for COVID-19
Eleven Pakistani journalists murdered from Jan 2019 to 30th April 2020
RMNP demands government to table ” Journalists Protection & Welfare Bill 2020 in Parliament
Like other countries, Pakistani media is facing new serious challenges due to the spread of COVID-19.Two Pakistani journalists Zafar Rsheed Bhatti (Rawalpindi) and Muhammad Anwar (Sukkur) died of Covid-19 while more than 40 journalists and media workers have tested positive for COVID-19 in different areas of Pakistan. This was revealed in the annual press freedom report of the Rural Media Network Pakistan (RMNP) issued in country Urdu language on the eve of World Press Freedom Day 3rd May 2020.
According to report since the outbreak of COVID-19, most journalists in Pakistan have been covering coronavirus-related news without proper equipment. Consequently, many of them have tested positive, while two lost their lives. Owners of the media houses have not adopted adequate measures for the protection of employees working with their organisations as per guidelines issued by the Government of Pakistan and district administration. Authorities should ensure the implementation of Government safety guidelines. More over media houses should provide protective equipment for frontline journalists and media workers to enable them to perform their duties safely. Similarly the heirs of journalists, who died of coronavirus, be paid Rs one million in compensation as announced by the government without any delay.
It was disclosed in RMNP annual press freedom report that complaints have been heard from rural areas and small towns where law enforcing agencies allegedly harassed and beaten rural journalists while covering COVID-19 related events. Journalists also faced hardships due to the ban on pillion riding and in many areas they have not been exempted despite authorities’ assurances.
The report recommended that public information is particularly important in this health crisis, while fake news is circulated on social media platforms. It has nothing to do with a war situation where the traditional media are controlled for reasons of national defence. On the contrary, in the present circumstances, journalists must be able to report freely on the spread of the disease throughout the country, an essential measure to curb it. Transparency is paramount and can be life-saving in a health crisis. RMNP demanded the release of all journalists and media workers who have been detained for their work.
It was highlighted in the report that 11 Pakistani journalists including one female were killed from January 2019 to 30th April 2020.According to RMNP monitoring out of these eleven ill-fated journalists, seven belong to rural areas and small towns.
Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Bill 2020
Despite repeated demands,” Protection of Journalists & Welfare Bill” still not tabled in parliament. The present journalists’ protection bill is a far better version of the bill that was purposed by previous government in 2017.All stake holders have agreed on this bill but due to unknown reasons government seems reluctant in the passage of this bill. Report urged Premier Imran Khan and new federal minister of Information $ & Broadcasting to present this bill in upcoming session of national assembly.
Not long so ago, Pakistani journalists and media were known for their fearless reporting and courageous stance against the authoritarianism of the state throughout the world. But these are Orwellian times. Of late, Pakistani journalists think that the state is increasingly bent on gagging any criticism that they make of the government policies. Nevertheless, it will be unfair to criticise the present government for curbing dissent. State’s keenness on censoring opposition to its policies predates Imran Khan’s government. But what is surprising is Khan’s continuation of such policies.
And as a result, what we see is the unprecedented trend of self-censorship that media houses have reduced them to. Today, one can hardly see media performing its most fundamental task, that is, acting as a watchdog. Unsurprisingly, both print and electronic media are busy in appeasing the government. Such trends in media mean that journalism is under threat more than it has ever been in Pakistan. It is alarming to note that today the state is becoming “distrustful of the independent mind[s].” In the process of such distrust, the government forgets that it is sowing the seeds of future political and social instabilities by curbing the dissent.
Pakistan has slipped three places in 2020’s World Press Freedom Index. The index compiled by the Reporters Sans Frontiers or Reporters Without Borders (RSF) – a Paris-based international non-profit organization working for freedom of information.
Out of 180 countries, RSF – powered by the World Economic Forum (WEF) – has placed Pakistan on 145th with an overall global score of- 0.31, three places down from 2019’s 142th spot. Fears are that Pakistan will go further down on the 2021 list.
It is fact that Pakistani media remained never free in so-called all democratic and military governments. Currently media facing financial crisis and thousands of journalists working in both print and electronic media have been sacked due to the downsizing and closure of newspapers and TV channels.
Pakistan is also one of the most dangerous countries for journalists, where according to the Rural Media Network Pakistan ‘s monitoring, 138 journalists were killed between 2000 and 2019, while only nine of the cases were solved,” Last year nine journalists were killed in Pakistan and this year two journalist shot dead in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces.
“Terrorism, religious extremism, sectarian violence and the alarming security situation are the main problems for journalists. They put their lives in danger to cover different assignments without insurance, safety equipment or proper safety training.
“Religious extremism continues to spread in many areas and there are many sectarian organisations fighting for domination,” “drugs and arms mafias, assassins, ethnic groups and other criminal gangs are also active, but due to the implementation of the National Action Plan, they are working under ground.
Religious leaders, keen to have their speeches denouncing other sects published in full, will threaten journalists who resist.
“Local religious leadership does not understand that correspondents have no control over editorial policy, and journalists receive threatening text messages from militants – this is a serious matter and deserves immediate action at the highest level.”
Journalists facing different threats in certain areas of the country, varying from influential figures harassing journalists who report on honour killing and gang rape incidents, to targeting by the Taliban, other militants and even security agencies. Authorities often falsely accuse journalists of various crimes should they carry out work exposing corruption.
Other important constraints on media freedom which impinge on journalists’ ability to do their work are the cultural of secrecy and the levels of bureaucracy concerning access to official information.
“Journalists find it almost impossible to find information related to large government deals or projects, and ministries remain tight-lipped on their activities and finances, denying access to information for journalists,”
Similarly, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) has been used to silence the broadcast media by either suspending licenses or simply threatening to do so. In addition, media houses are also exposed to propaganda from state agencies, pressured by powerful political elements and non-state actors involved in the current conflict to publish what they are spoon-fed.
Urban versus rural threats
While these threats face journalists working throughout Pakistan, RMNP as – as its name would suggest – focused on addressing issues confronted by members of the media working in rural areas.
“Urban-based journalists are paid and have support from their respective media organisations and official publicity departments,” “they are being provided maximum facilities by media owners as a result of the media ownership in the cities.”
“There is no comprehensive system to act when a rural journalist is attacked, kidnapped or tortured. No one is aware of any hotline for assistance, “rural journalists have no contact with the journalist bodies active in big cities.”
Some rural journalists, also known as district correspondents, are engaged by media organisations for reporting news and views from the rural areas.
“Historically the development of media in Pakistan has taken place in metropolitan centres, “this is not unique to Pakistan, however what is perhaps different in the Pakistani context is that the development has not filtered down to rural areas.”
As a result, rural journalists remain neglected, often working in isolation with extremely limited support from media organisations in financial, moral and professional terms.
Topics deemed off-limits
Unfortunately, caught between the various powers at play in the rural areas of Pakistan, journalists often find themselves facing threats and ultimatums.
“Censorship in Pakistan used to be straightforward. Certain topics were simply off limits,” the situation is more complicated and more confusing.”
However, there are still a large number of topics which are basically deemed no-go subjects for journalists. These include articles critical of the military or government, investigative reports, and any reporting on the Taliban or other similar groups.
Journalists in rural areas face the same constraints as their colleagues in the city, but also face serious additional issues because of their location and the social differences in those areas.
For journalists in rural areas, corruption, sectarianism, honour killings, gang rape and feudal powers all represent subject matter that can cause serious issues.
Government Attempt to Regulate Social Media Platform
Media rights groups RMNP and PFUJ have rejected new sets of rules approved by the federal government to regulate social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and even TikTok and termed it as an attempt to control freedom of speech and expression, guaranteed under Article 19 of the Constitution.
It has been noted that the current PTI government is bent upon placing restrictions on media, social media and freedom of speech since it came into power in 2018.
“These attempts indicate government’s dictatorial tendencies and authoritarian behaviour and the fact that it cannot face criticism of any kind and from any medium of the media in the country,” they stated
RMNP and PFUJ said that the so-called “rules” made to regulate the media are specifically aimed at targeting the Pakistani citizens’ right to freedom of expression, which are already under tremendous pressure since the government’s installation.
“Attacks on media houses, forced retrenchments of independent journalists on the directions of state institutions, curtailment of advertisements to media to force media houses to toe government’s line are all aimed at curtailing freedom of expression in the country,” “The new rules to control the social media are like a last nail in the coffin of freedom of expression.”
Rights groups have warned the government that it will tarnish the democratic image of the country internationally, called upon all stakeholders to forge unity for fighting against these draconian Rules.
“They categorically stated that we will not allow such an attack on civil liberties in the country and will strongly resist the government’s attempt to tame the social media platforms, “it is a blatant attempt by the government to bring down the entire democratic process in the country by silencing the free speech particularly the political opposition.”
Local Media Right groups also noted that the rules go way beyond the powers given to the government under Pakistan Telecommunications Act and Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act. “By unilaterally imposing these rules, the government has also by-passed the Parliament as any bar on freedom of expression under Article 19 of the Constitution cannot be imposed by any government under any pretext without amending the constitution. They alleged that after government’s complete failure on all economic and political fronts, it is now trying to sustain itself by controlling the social media through such draconian laws.
“Pakistani Media Rights organisations have called upon the government to immediately withdraw the said rules which have make the country a laughing stock in the comity of nations,”
PTI Democratic Government & Arrest of Mir Shakil urRehman
The present administration of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), led by Prime Minister Imran Khan, is the third consecutive elected government to come to power, as a result of national polls.
For a political party that was bolstered by the media, in its early days, one would have expected it to further push for the freedom of press. But, it hasn’t.
The arrest of Mir Shakil ur Rehman, the editor-in-chief of Pakistan’s largest media group Jang and GEO, by the anti-graft body, the National Accountability Bureau, should not be seen in isolation. There was a pattern on display in the last 20 months, since the PTI came to power, to vilify journalists, especially those associated with the Jang group.
If Prime Minister Imran Khan ever believed in the freedom of press, he has now taken a U-turn, say journalists and anchors associated with Jang-GEO group.
On the other hand, Mr Salman Iqbal CEO ARY TV tweeted on Mir Shakeel arrest and said that in 2015,a case under Anti-Terrorism Act was registered against him but later on proved wrong. It was quashed by court, rest of the media watched, stayed quiet. It was painful to see owner of BOL TV was arrested and put behind bar in 2019, during former premier Nawaz Sharif government, some even rejoiced. And then Pakistan Broadcasting Association (PBA) which was supposed to protect media went against us.
Regional & Smaller Publications
Regional and small newspapers are facing multiple challenges for their survival. In Pakistan, while government is major advertiser. Twenty five percent government advertisement quotas fixed for regional and smaller publications, but it had never been implemented in its true letter and spirit. Advertising agencies release government commercial advertisement to regional and smaller publications but non-APNS member publications are not being paid despite the passage of many years. Now the government has changed the procedure of the payment under which Press Information Department (PID) have been authorised for direct payment to newspapers and TV channels. Mean while Council of Newspapers & Editors (CPNE) on the behalf of media industry hailed this government ‘decision and said that this will surely lift up of the morale of the media houses and professionals who is this grave times are performing their duties.