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Journalists targeted by insurgents and draconian state censorship

As the insurgency ramps up its violent tactics, the Pakistani government has taken the country's vibrant media environment a step back with repressive legislation in order to control coverage of the conflict.
As the insurgency ramps up its violent tactics, the Pakistani government has taken the country's vibrant media environment a step back with repressive legislation in order to control coverage of the conflict.

Arshad Arbab via EPA

As the Pakistani state combats different insurgent groups, increased violence this year has led to a crackdown on media. Some radio stations have been ordered to not broadcast BBC Urdu-language programs and parliament is ratifying severe regulations to control how the conflict is covered, report the Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) and other IFEX members. Journalists are also caught between the military and extremists as they struggle to practice their profession.

On 29 October, changes were made to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) law, introducing clauses that ban the broadcast of statements from militants, live footage of a suicide bomber or terrorist attack, as well as news that is counter to the ideology of Pakistan and state sovereignty. Broadcasts are also banned that defame or ridicule the head of state, armed forces, or the executive, legislative or judicial branches of the state, report IFEX members. PPF reports that lawmakers from the ruling party and the opposition supported the amendments.

The government is combating extremists in many parts of the country under their control, but introducing a system of censorship will only obstruct plural voices and media development. "It's unacceptable for a democratic, civilian-led government to propose legislation that is essentially censorship," said Freedom House.

At the same time, PEMRA told 15 FM radio stations to stop broadcasting BBC news bulletins because of technicalities over the terms of their licenses, reports PPF, calling this international ban a "serious breach of freedom of expression."

Meanwhile, in Quetta, Baluchistan, a respected newspaper "Asaap" was shut down by a paramilitary group in August. There has been no reaction from the government, says Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

A recent situation report by the International Federation of Journalists' (IFJ) Asia-Pacific branch describes Pakistani journalists under threat from separatist groups, nationalist forces, political parties and paramilitary actors. The report focuses on the media environment in Balochistan, where journalists struggle with low wages, lack of training and resources, as well as frequent threats and violence with no protection offered by employers. Those who try to practice journalism in this tense environment tend to practise self-censorship. Some journalists must work for more than one media outlet to earn an income, says IFJ. In fact, one journalist told IFJ that he works for 11 media outlets. Others become journalists because they can find no other work; they only wish to acquire a press card to take bribes for stories, undermining the profession.

Local journalists, who work with international organisations like BBC, Reuters, and others, enjoy a better working environment but face threats from separatist groups who feel they have a right to international media space to air their views, says the report.

When it comes to security concerns, journalists are cautious not to offend any of the armed groups, says IFJ. But journalist Chisti Mujahid was murdered in February 2008 for writing about a chief of Balochistan's powerful Murree tribe who had been killed and buried in neighbouring Afghanistan.

"The Baloch nationalists often dictate to us that their reports should be published in such and such a manner," Razaur Rahman, editor of the "Daily Express", told IFJ. Journalists have been shot at, bombed, beaten and detained. Because of their writing, some have had their equipment seized; others have been told to leave Balochistan or be killed.

Despite tensions in Balochistan, Pakistan's media environment has flourished in recent years with the expansion of television and radio, providing live domestic and international news coverage, commentary, and call-in talk shows, giving diverse and critical viewpoints, says Freedom House. But the recent clampdown on independent media is a serious setback, and restricting press freedom during periods of unrest is a disservice to the Pakistani people.

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