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Understanding Pakistan’s Complicated Relationship with Journalism

Understanding Pakistan’s Complicated Relationship with Journalism

With the reputation of journalism on the guillotine across the world, Pakistan is an extremely interesting case. The country has a multi-layered relationship with journalists which is complicated and complex. Here in Pakistan, it is not only the government that wields power. One has to remember the very close influential relationship between the State and its military body, and then, being the Islamic Republic, additional religious elements.

Before trying to assess the current landscape and the future of journalism in Pakistan, the following should be noted: for this piece, a majority of reporters and representatives requested to stay anonymous due to security concerns. The latest string of incidents reported on journalists emphasizes how the field itself is life or death in many circumstances. Geo.tv, for example, highlights that “117 journalists have been killed in the past 15 years in Pakistan, and of these, only three cases were taken up in the judicial courts”. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists lists 60 journalists who have been killed in Pakistan since 1994. The 2016 IFJ reported 115 deaths since 1990, making Pakistan the 4th most dangerous countryfor journalists in the world, and most recently, the RSF ranks it 139 out of 180. These reports paint a pretty bleak picture of the state’s relationship with journalism. However, after speaking to journalists reporting on local, district, national and international issues, the situation becomes grey as each face different situations depending on the nature of the articles and information being shared.

The constitution of Pakistan includes Article 19A, which states that “every citizen shall have the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by law”. Pakistan’s Electronic Media Regulatory Authority is a constitutionally-established federal institution responsible for regulating and issuing channel licenses, print and electronic media. Mohammad Tahir, General Manager of Media and Operations, states that “PEMRA has transparent guidelines for the code of conduct, monitoring, and parameters for information shared”. All this suggests positive signs.

In theory, the relationship between State and press is one of respect. However, Pakistan is aware of its struggle with anti-state elements and the consequences of fighting a war against terror in its own and neighbouring countries. National Security has used fear of war as its primary reason to monitor and at times restrict the flow of information. This means that journalists have to work within set parameters in order to get their stories printed- and to remain safe. 2003 is an example of the challenges journalists faced due to National Security. Local journalists reporting on security elements in controlled conflict areas such as FATA had very clear boundaries to work within due to Talibanisation in the area, ongoing military operations, and warfare between militants and Pakistani forces. These journalists gathered information from local political groups, the security agency and witness reports.

All of the journalists interviewed for this article said that they have been “advised due to the nature of their reports to bear in mind National Security”. This advice can be interpreted as a silencing tactic and a way to censor the information, evident in the lack of research being published and publicized. However, the notion of National Security’s ability to withhold information from the public is a debate taking place worldwide. If it is a threat to journalism and its credibility, then this is something the journalist community needs to unite against and to debate and tackle.

Another problem for Pakistani journalists in the field is a lack of organisational support. Local journalists face different types of pressures and must be mindful of multiple perspectives when reporting on issues within conflict zones. Every local reporter I spoke to, for instance, mentioned that voluntary and involuntary self-censorship are used to avoid clashes with tribal elders, security agencies, the political power in that area, as well as different militant organisations who may get provoked by the piece, or pressure from these groups to share specific information.

The reality for local journalists when filing a story is that it is bound to upset one of the factions. Then, the threat is not just to the reporter; if a local journalist reports on stories which tribal leaders or the militant factions do not approve of, they have enough power to expel the reporter from the area, destroy their homes, and threaten their families. It is vital, therefore, that journalists are provided with enough protection in order to report with integrity and without the fear to self, family or financial stability.

In speaking to national and international journalists, it is apparent that the relationship between journalism and the different actors stated above depends on also how much traction a piece receives. Governing bodies, however, have “not managed to provide legislation to meet the needs of journalists and the structures within media are weak”, as Myra Imran, Vice President of National Press Club Islamabad Chapter, highlights. For example, one journalist- who wishes to stay anonymous- describes how he had been kidnapped and injured while carrying out his duties reporting in one of the conflict zones. After his release, he was no longer able to continue work and now faces an uphill struggle to get any form of aid. Local journalists are additionally troubled by lack of balanced reporting, which greatly impacts their credibility.

If journalism is to both survive the threats it is currently facing and maintain a healthy relationship with the State, then local journalists are in strong need of adequate training, especially in reporting. Many young journalists struggle as they are untaught, untrained, and uneducated on the full scope of such dealing with sensitive matters and information. This is not helped by the fact majority of Pakistani media houses, channels, publications relay messages in line with their personal, political, and business affiliations, compromising the journalistic integrity of the information shared. One needs only to consider the reality of the situation within the borders of Pakistan in which no journalist could write about blasphemy or corruption without fear. And the threat extends beyond just military or security reasons. With the weak state of privacy laws implementation, it is relatively easy to get information about the majority of people in the public eye. Fear of reprisal and those with power and influence adds another layer to the many conflicts and hesitations journalists have while reporting, which leads to self-censorship.

Due to the different military, religious, and political practices mentioned above for the silencing of voices and the (lack of) security situation within Pakistan, the middle narrative has faded and people have been pushed into camps: pro-military or pro-government. In a sense, the relationship between the State and press seems to be surviving. Above highlights how journalists have to contend with multiple factors due to political, security and religious reasons, or are manipulated due to financial vulnerability. As a result,  local journalists feel that their futures and that of journalism are being put to question. If the middle man is completely eradicated, then the relationship between press and Pakistan would be that of a vessel which projects an image that may not necessarily be true. In other words, the injustices faced by thousands of people continue until something catastrophic happens.

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