Pakistan has fallen three points on the World Press Freedom Index since 2019. The Index published by Reporters Without Borders, looks at various factors to assign an overall score, relating to the freedom of the press, each year. In 2019 Pakistan ranked 143 out of 180 countries, while this year it ranked 145.
This change was noted by many on World Press Freedom Day that is observed on May 3 each year. Another report by the Freedom Network – a Pakistan-based media and development sector watchdog – found over 90 cases of “attacks and violations” against the media. The report showed that over the past year, seven journalists had been killed, two abducted and nine had been arrested, along with various others experiencing other forms of intimidation such as threats and assault. What is perhaps more worrying is that the report found the federal capital Islamabad to be the most dangerous place for journalists where over 34 percent of the recorded cases of violence against journalists happened.
For those who have been keeping up with the state of the media in the country, these rankings and numbers do not come as a surprise. Journalists over the past two years have been consistently complaining of curbs on their ability to freely do their job, and continuous attack on freedom of the press. There have also been massive lay-offs due to the economic downfall the industry has seen.
Media owners put the blame for this economic recession on the current government for not clearing payments due for advertisements. Another reason cited by media organisations is that the authorities are, on purpose, not giving out ads to certain media organisations further creating economic strife forcing them to lay off employees.
Earlier in February 2020, Pakistan Herald Publications, the company which owns Dawn and other subsidiaries, filed a petition in the Sindh High Court claiming mala fide intentions on part of the federal government to intentionally cut Dawn’s ad revenue, stating “In fact, Dawn is being punished for the views and reports that it has published in its various editions as these views and reports do not conform to the views and opinions held by […] the highest functionaries of the federal government,”
Ironically, the publication Herald Magazine, which takes its name from the main publication group, was shut down last year, amid claims of censorship and lack of economic resources to continue publishing the magazine. In December 2019, Dawn group’s Islamabad office was also attacked by a mob twice, without any repercussions or actions from the authorities.
Another mainstream media house, Geo, which is part of the Jang group, also says that they have borne the brunt of decreasing ad placements by the government and many believe that they are being targeted for their critical stance on the current government. A statement by the All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) also took notice of this “ban” from KP and Punjab governments on placing ads in Jang and Dawn.
This is in line with the rhetoric the Prime Minister Imran Khan, before coming into government, called for the complete boycott of Geo. It is for this reason that the arrest and imprisonment of Mir Shakil ur Rehman, on corruption charges, is considered a dubious charge by many.
It exemplifies the attitude that the current government, particularly the Prime Minister, has had towards the press. He has repeatedly called them “fake news” and implied that there were corrupt individuals running the media. In a tweet on World Press Freedom Day, he quoted a verse from the Holy Quran, “For those who keep spreading fake news.”
Despite multiple questions and growing protests by media employees, the Prime Minister has always maintained that the press is free in Pakistan. Speaking at an event in the US in 2019, the Prime Minister said, “The Pakistani media, in my opinion, is even freer than the British media,” he said, advocating for greater internal media regulation. “The media in Pakistan is not just free, but sometimes out of control.”
As Pakistan’s rating on the World Press Index falls, and complaints from journalists and media owners continue to mount about economic pressure and censorship, it is clear that not everything is as the government claims. As one journalist told Al Jazeera, “Now they don’t threaten your life, they threaten the organisation’s life.”