Walking a tightrope: Journalists’ miseries of reporting on sensitive issues in Pakistan  


ISLAMABAD: Media practitioners have to tread carefully in Pakistan to not displease state and non-state actors as their any act of displeasing them not only put their lives and jobs at risk, but closure of news channels [as well].

Many journalists have been ‘stood victim’ of this unannounced censorship during the past few years and many others are walking a tightrope. Azaz Syed, an investigative journalist based in Islamabad, is among them.

In an evening of May 2012, Syed received a telephonic call and the caller [his father] informed him that some unidentified persons opened indiscriminate fire at their house and fled, leaving the house front-wall and the main gate with bullet holes.

It is pertinent to mention here that Syed was working on some stories of sensitive nature those days and he had also been received an offer against his work, which he had refused.

“My father had an idea about that I’m working on some sensitive nature stories and he also had advised me to be careful,” Syed said.

“I had also idea about such attacks as the stories were related the alleged manhandling of some powerful actors,” Syed added.  He, however, avoided taking names of those powerful actors, adding that naming can put many, including you [this correspondent] into trouble.

Besides, he was feared that no media outlet will publish the story with identification of individual under the prevailing state of media in the country.

Recalling the incident, Syed said his father and a cousin were in the house while he was in office when some armed persons, with covered faces, opened indiscriminate fired using a high-velocity firearm. They shot several times in the main gate, adding that bullet holes can still be witnessed, Syed added.

It was not the first time when his house was attacked to stop him from his professional work. Some unidentified persons had attacked his house with stones earlier for the same reason. That time they pelted stones which damaged his car’s front mirror.

Regarding legal action, he said the police response, in both the incidents, was quick but as he asked the police to mention names of some powerful actors allegedly involved in the attack they got lazy and requested to avoid mentioning the names.

The more painful for him was that when he nominated certain names in the FIR, but the police officers refused to register a case against them, he deplored.

According to Syed, he has been harassed, intimidated and threatened several times by state and non-state actors for his professional work. He said threats and harassment remained part and parcel of a journalist’s life, but he was curious that the enhanced role of state in media affairs these days is more damaging to the freedom of expression in this country.

Referring to Shehzeb Jillani case, he said state actors used different tactics to bar journalists from doing their work and charges against Jillani is one such example.

It is pertinent to mention here that the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) had initiated an inquiry against Jillani after a case was registered against him over ‘remarks against state institutions. Jillani was charged with ‘cyber terrorism’ for news coverage of enforced disappearances in the country.

How is Pemra being used to pressurize media?

The increased in media censorship could be observed from the number of notices issued by the regularity authority to the news channels, anchorpersons and other media practitioners in the last few years.

Back in 2013, there was only one noticed that was issued by Pakistan Electronic Media Regularity Authority (PEMRA) to a news channel for airing offensive content, whereas in the first five months of 2019, the regularity body has issued six notices to the news channels.

Last three years happened to be the most challenging for the news media as out of a total 44 notices that PEMRA issued in the past 13 years, 29 were served in the last two-and-a-half-years.

As per the details available with PPF, a local non-profit organization working for the safety and security of journalists, PEMRA issued notices to six news channels in the first five months of 2019, including News One TV Channel who aired the news related National Accountability Bureau (NAB) Chairman Justice (Retd) Javed Iqbal.

Later, the broadcaster apologized to the NAB chief for airing the news.

In light of the orders of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, in suo-moto proceedings on August 30, PEMRA has also issued instructions to all news channels, prohibiting discussion on any sub-judice matter in any talk show, aired by any TV channel.

The authority said discussion on sub-judice matters not only amounts to contempt of court, but is also in sheer violation of the PEMRA laws.

Meanwhile, the authority issued a show cause notice to ARY News for telecasting a programme hosted by Arshad Sharif for discussing sub-judice case of money laundering against a former president which is pending for adjudication before the Supreme Court.

The authority had directed the channel to show-cause within seven days and in case of failure to reply within the stipulated time, the authority shall have the right to initiate ex-parte proceedings against the channel, including suspension of programme for 30 days.

According to the  statistics available on PEMRA website, the authority issued 350 show-cause notices, 100 advices or explanations, 87 warnings, 81 directives, 60 public service messages, banned 17 anchors, eight advertisements, and suspended or revoked 13 channels from 2015 to 2018.  The authority also imposed fines worth Rs106.63 million during the aforementioned period.

How is credible journalism a risky business?

Umar Cheem, an investigative journalist based in Islamabad, said truth and truth teller both are in danger and censorship is rampant. He said, “Speaking truth is a crime unless it’s duly approved by the people in power. And those who brave against the odds are exposed to dangers ranging from the loss of job to loss of life.”

Cheema said Pakistani media is passing through unfortunate times witnessed never before.

Raza Rumi, senior journalist and columnist, said freedom of expression in Pakistan is currently facing a great number of challenges.

Rumi said the first challenge is wiggle worded legal and constitutional provisions that proscribe commentary and expression on certain national issues such as national security, religion and judiciary, which can be interpreted by the government their own way and thereby curbing standard set by journalists, anchorpersons and writers.

Talking about the future of credible journalism, he said the future looks at the moment rather challenged and constrained mainly because of the climate of self-censorship and feared that prevailed in the Pakistan media industry.

The senior columnist said factors that affect freedom of expression currently are largely internal, not external, adding that the internal issues relate to the nature of a news report.

Media is currently facing a serious financial crisis, adding that revenue is going down, advertisement in print are very low and uncertain and rates of many electronic media are downplayed. Such factors give lots of leverage to the government, he deplored.

He, however, said that the threat of non-state actors like violent groups; violent political parties and mafias such as land mafia also lead to the media self-censorship. He added that the editorial filters are very weak in electronic and print media, adding that the institution of editor is declining.

Besides, he said the owners of media houses are assuming the responsibility for controlling the content and streamlining it and they often try to please the powerful lobbies such as the government, big business and the ‘powerful military’ so they are in the habit or restrict the way reporting is done.

Rumi lamented that the courts and political parties were not playing their role in a democracy, free media and freedom of expression.

RIUJ President Aamir Sajjad Syed said some pressure groups are harassing journalists to publish the news of their choice, due to the reasons journalists are forced to observe self-censorship.

The president added those who dare to resist the pressure groups put their lives in danger, adding that many have lost their lives in the line of duty.

He further said that journalists under the umbrella of PFUJ and its sub-body RIUJ were constantly struggling to resist the prevailing state of media in the country.

Referring journalists’ protests, he said, it was a result of protests that the journalists’ community was invited by the government to attend the Senate Standing Committee on Information’s meeting and share its problems.

Former PEMRA chairman Absar Alam said there is need of both media persons and state representatives to demonstrate responsibility and avoid misuse of power, adding that both state officials and media persons exploit each other’s weakness.

Explaining the current conundrum, he said sometime media or anchorpersons put undue pressure on the regularity body for its genuine actions or some other time, the authority has been used for political benefits. He, however, said PEMRA is an independent body and it can resist political other pressures, adding that however, it varies from person to person who heads the regularity authority.

He said the authority doesn’t have the power to take action against all kinds of violations, adding that there is a separate law for it but unfortunately the poor implementation of it causes extra burden on PEMRA.

Former information minister Chaudhry Fawad Hussain said PEMRA is an independent authority working to regularize media affairs and the PTI government has nothing to do with its affairs, adding that why the regulatory authority has enhanced media surveillance, its officials can explain the procedure well.

Regarding journalists’ security challenges, Chaudhry said the government is aware about the challenges that journalist community is confronting and also working to solve their physical and financial problems.

He, however, accepted that the government was also working to improve the regularity system. Chaudhry said there is no financial crisis in the media industry and if there are some financial problems these are their own created.

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