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Legal, political and policy environment for Pakistani media has deteriorated significantly

Journalists protest the death of Tamour Khan, a satellite technician for SAMAA TV, in Karachi, Pakistan, 13 February 2017
Journalists protest the death of Tamour Khan, a satellite technician for SAMAA TV, in Karachi, Pakistan, 13 February 2017

AP Photo/Shakil Adil

This statement was originally published on pakistanpressfoundation.org on 3 May 2017.

The legal, political and policy environment for Pakistani media deteriorated significantly and Pakistani media professionals continue to face violence while those who attack journalists enjoy impunity from prosecution.

A report covering the period January 2016 to April 2017, released by Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) to commemorate World Press Freedom Day on May 3, said actions of the government, parliament as well as the judiciary seemed to indicate that all branches of state are determined to control the media, rather than promoting a safe and secure environment for the growth of pluralistic democratic media institutions.

The report criticizes the Pakistan government for spending millions of rupees to broadcast and publish advertisements warning citizens that misuse of Article 19 of the Constitution could subject them to fines or imprisonment. The ads listed over a dozen laws that could be used against citizens exercising their right to freedom of speech.

The report cites the draft "Journalists Welfare and Protection" bill as an example of cynical state response to the deplorable safety environment in Pakistan. The draft bill instead of addressing the issue of safety, proposes significant restrictions on media freedom and independence. Section 6 of the draft bill requires media organizations to get approval from the government before deputing a journalist for duty in a sensitive area. Section 12 of the draft bill gives government the authority to ban media organizations for up to three months and to impose fines of up to twenty million Pakistani Rupees (about US$190,000) for violations.

The bill is effectively silent on measures the governments at the federal, provincial and local level will take to ensure the proper investigation and prosecution of cases of violence against media and holding those in authority responsible for impunity for such crimes.

The report is also critical of the "Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016" because it places onerous restrictions on online expression and increases online surveillance which could potentially have a chilling effect on freedom of opinion and expression.

Contrary to global efforts to decriminalize defamation, Pakistan took a giant regressive step in 2016 by using the Anti-Terrorism Act to jail journalists for defamation. The use of anti-terrorism courts for a case involving defamation makes the enforcement of an already problematic law even more draconian.

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), has dramatically increased the intensity and frequency of punitive measures against television channels. PEMRA issued 166 show cause notices to private television channels over violations of ethical codes and has taken 380 actions for the airing of "unethical" and "unsuitable" programmes. PEMRA had imposed fines of over 70 million rupees (US$650,000) on 50 channels from December 2015 to April 2017. During that period, the authority also suspended the transmission of six television channels and prohibited nine anchorpersons from appearing on eight TV channels.

Using broad powers to block distribution of films, the Central Board of Film Censorship (CBFC) banned three movies in 2016. The movies that were banned by CBFC include Maalik, Among the Believers and Besieged in Quetta.

As the elections approach, political parties including those in the national and provincial governments, have whipped up dangerous rhetoric against mainstream media and social media accusing them of condoning blasphemy and of acting against national aspirations and interests.

The harassment of women media professionals remains endemic and media houses and organizations representing publishers, editors and working journalists remain apathetic to the safety of female staff members. This is evident from the fact that only a handful of media houses have instituted even the minimum safety mechanisms of Protection of Women against Harassment at Workplace Act 2010 that all organizations in Pakistan are legally required to implement.

The report expresses regret that the media became entangled in tensions between the military and civilian authorities, when on October 10, 2016 the federal government imposed an international travel ban on journalist Cyril Almeida by placing his name on the Exit Control List (ECL). The action followed the publication of his story titled "Act against militants or face international isolation, civilians tell military" in the daily Dawn on October 6, 2016. Although the travel ban was lifted soon after, the crises continues as Major General Asif Ghafoor, Director General of Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), rejected the notification issued by the Prime Minister's Secretariat on April 29, 2017.

The Pakistani media also continued to be subjected to violent attacks, encouraged by a high level of impunity for these crimes. PPF has recorded 73 instances of journalists or media workers being killed for their work since 2002 but there have only been five convictions for murders of journalists.

The problem of impunity is compounded by a lack of political will to hold to account those in positions of power who attack journalists, delays in the judicial process, corruption and incompetence of local police forces, and inadequate resources and training for investigators and prosecutors, particularly in rural areas.

Between January 1, 2016 to April 30, 2017, three media personnel were killed in the line of duty and nineteen media professionals were injured in attacks while performing their professional duties. There were also several cases of attacks on media houses and illegal arrests and detentions of journalists by local police at the behest of influential politicians and landlords.

Five bloggers and an executive of Jang Group, Pakistan's leading media group, were abducted by unidentified kidnappers. All except one were returned after some time in mysterious circumstances. One blogger, Samar Abbas, remains missing to this day although his family has filed a petition in the Islamabad High Court. There has been no attempt to investigate the abduction and no one has been held accountable for the kidnapping and alleged torture.

While the state of freedom of expression is disappointing, there were a few positive developments. These include the enactment of the Sindh Transparency and Right to Information Law 2016, which is an important step in creating the legal framework to implement Article 19-A of the Constitution of Pakistan that recognizes access to information as a constitutionally guaranteed right. Another positive development in 2016 was the lifting of ban on YouTube after more than three years. The government of Sindh took another step forward by appointing a focal person responsible for monitoring crimes against journalists and media houses and to act as bridge between police and other law enforcement agencies and media for better coordination and follow up in the cases of killed journalists.

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