Islamabad — Mazhar Abbas is clear on what the year 2019 meant for journalists in Pakistan.
“It was a year of pressure,” the veteran journalist and trade unionist said. “It was a year of suppression.”
Mr. Abbas said media organisations were targeted directly and indirectly during the past year. In some instances, news talk shows were taken off-air and the government withheld advertisements in what appeared to be efforts to force the press into submission.
On World Press Freedom Day 2020, Pakistan dropped three places to 145 out of 180 countries in the latest press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders. The drop validates the belief among many journalists and human rights defenders in Pakistan that restrictions on the news media increased during the past year.
The government made regulatory overtures to expand its control over online speech. Journalists were charged with criminal offences for their work, longtime and credible publications were forced to close down, and political expression was systematically curtailed on the mainstream media. In addition to physical and digital threats, journalists also faced greater financial pressures in 2019.
Experts suggest the press was never really free in Pakistan but whatever independence it had built over time is fast eroding.
“Press freedom was always under threat,” Farah Zia, the Director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), said. “Every regime — military or democratic — tried to pass laws to control information.”
Ms. Zia, who is also a former news magazine editor, said the more the reach of the mass media grows in Pakistan, the more they are seeing an increase in curbs against the media.
“New tools of censorship are being developed for new mediums,” she said. “Every effort is being made to control the media.”
In January, the federal cabinet quietly approved new rules to regulate online content. The rules were later suspended after fierce resistance from the local civil society and expression of concerns by international Internet companies. The rules included blanket authority for government to declare certain online content as “fake news” and force social media companies to remove it, a move widely seen as an attempt to stifle online dissent and criticisms of the government. The rules also afforded government broad access to the social media data of Pakistani users.
Iqbal Khattak, the Executive Director of Freedom Network, said the attempts to control the press in Pakistan used to be ad-hoc previously. But the social media rules episode appears to suggest that the authorities are now systematically following a “blueprint” to restrict independent journalism, he said.
“If you look at the top 10 or even the top 40 private news channels, you will notice that they have the same editorial line,” Mr. Khattak said. “In this context, it seems the social media is the last frontier of free information and if it is captured, it will be game over.”
He said the government suspended the rules due to the strong and unified stance of journalists and civil society organisations. But it is likely the State will attempt to take control again, he said.
Shahzada Zulfiqar, the President of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), agreed.
“The desire (of the government) still is to control (the media including social media),” he said. “The kind of responsible media they want is one that speaks in the interest of the government, not the public interest.”
The Pakistani private news media relies in part on government advertisements for its revenues.
Mr. Abbas said the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government wanted to punish the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, which was in power previously — the new ruling party alleged that its predecessor’s ad spending were political bribes paid to the media to win its support.
So the PTI government temporarily stopped official ad spending to private news media, did not clear outstanding ad payments, slashed ad rates drastically, and reduced the quota of ads.
“This intensified the financial crisis of the media industry,” Mr. Abbas said. “The media has never faced as major a financial crisis as this before.”
He said the biggest concern during the past year was job security for the journalists. Many journalists lost their jobs and those who retained employment faced a salary crisis. Mr. Abbas said he knows about newspapers that have not paid salaries to their employees for the past eight months.
“Journalists will still work these jobs because they know the moment they leave, they won’t be able to collect their dues,” he said.
Mr. Zulfiqar said the union had settled a wage award with the media owners in April 2019. The agreement was unanimous, the likes of which have not been seen since the ’70s, he said.
But the non-payment of advertisement dues by the government threw a spanner in the works.
Mr. Zulfiqar said he does not want to justify the stance of the media owners because he thinks some of them have also used non-payment by the government as a tool to not pay their employees, even though they could have afforded regular salary payments regardless. But he said it is unfortunate that the government is not even transferring the Rs. 3 billion in dues pending at its end that it had agreed to pay, after negotiations with media houses.
The economic downfall of the media is also making it vulnerable to abandon its watchdog role.
“The financial strangulation of the media is paying rich dividends for the government,” Mr. Khattak said. “It is not easy for media outlets to continue with independent editorial policies when the major chunk of ad revenue is from the government.”
He said journalists are forced to balance their editorial independence with the economic interest of the organisation.
Mr. Zulfiqar scoffed at the mention of ‘editorial independence’. He said there isn’t any left. Whichever media organisations were trying to put up some little effort for their independence have been intimidated through circulation disruptions and advertisement bans, he said.
The State of Human Rights in 2019 report released by HRCP on Thursday notes in its overview that “the government decided to put a squeeze on independent and critical voices, particularly targeting premier newspapers such as Dawn and muffling voices on many television channels, including Geo News and Aaj TV” in 2019.
Many of these incidents were in connection with political expression, which Ms. Zia said is primarily conducted through the media.
“If you stop it, then where is the opposition?” she said. “Many rights movements are facing complete blackout in the media, so there are absolute red lines (the media cannot cross in its coverage).”
Threats, intimidation, and attacks await journalists on the other side of the red lines.
The Freedom Network’s annual press freedom report counted at least 91 incidents of threats and attacks against media professionals, including seven murders, from May 2019 to April 2020.
Mr. Khattak said murder is the “most extreme form of censorship”. The murder of one journalist can have a chilling effect on the expression of tens and hundreds of other journalists, he said.
“But there is hardly any progress in catching the killers,” Mr. Khattak said. “Deep-rooted immunity in crimes against journalists is the driving force behind more attacks on the press.”
Mr. Zulfiqar said it is the State’s responsibility to protect journalists and the government should investigate the murders.
News media and journalists were also directly and collectively targeted on social media through coordinated smear campaigns in 2019. The ‘Arrest Anti Pak Journalists’ trend on Twitter was among one of many that used oft-repeated labels of ‘anti-state’ and ‘unpatriotic’ to malign and discredit independent journalists.
The journalists have realised that they are on their own, Mr. Khattak said.
“The best course unfortunately is to self-censor themselves,” he said. “Self-censorship has increased.”
Ms. Zia said the term ‘self-censorship’ puts undue onus of responsibility on journalists without realising that it is “a byproduct of an acute form of censorship”.
“What do you expect journalists to do when they have to retain their jobs under pressure,” she said.
On the eve of the World Press Freedom 2020, Mr. Zulfiqar was also concerned about the effects of the coronavirus-related economic slowdown on the Pakistani news media.
“There will be a genuine impact on the media industry after the coronavirus, because government and private businesses will not have funds to sustain advertisements at the current rate,” he said. “I cannot begin to imagine how terrible the level of unemployment in the media is going to be then. I fear that many newspapers and TV channels will shut down.”
The union can demand for a bailout package from the government and financial support for press clubs, he said, but that is akin to begging for a favour and it is likely to come with strings attached.
Mr. Zulfiqar said the news channels and newspapers will probably never prosper again. He and Ms. Zia agreed that the broadcast media bubble was going to burst ultimately. Many big business owners from other industries had started their news channels to build or sustain their clout, Mr. Zulfiqar said.
“Now they realise the news business is not very profitable,” he said.
Ms. Zia said the Pakistani news media will have to be mindful of where the technology is going and how to creatively change their product.
Many Pakistani journalists who were forced to leave by their media organisations have taken to YouTube and Facebook to offer their news and analysis. Some have amassed large followings online in a short period. But not all journalists will be able to make the transition from traditional to digital media, Mr. Zulfiqar said.
“Journalists will have to find their opportunities themselves,” he said. “It is going to be a tough time ahead.”