In Pakistan, it’s not uncommon to witness brazen acts of target killings that claim innocent lives in broad daylight. At a time like this, raising your voice for human rights and condemning evil acts can be fatal in itself.

By Kokab Kabir

At least 26 journalists were killed in Pakistan in their line of duty during the past five years. Yet,  only 16 of these cases went to court for trial. Of these 16, only six trials were concluded and in those, just one solitary conviction was handed down. A study called “Zero Justice for Pakistan’s 26 Murdered Journalists” that was published in Pakistans Journalism World, revealed that newspaper journalists were three times most vulnerable than TV journalists. Of the total number of 26 dead between 2013 and 2018, 18 were newspaper journalists while eight were TV journalists. Punjab was cited as the most dangerous province in the country to practice journalism – eight journalists lost their lives in Punjab – followed by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) where a further seven lost their lives. Sindh and Punjab were both highlighted as being particularly dangerous for TV journalists.

Sadly, most murderers in these cases remain faceless and unidentified. This, even though potential threats or alleged perpetrators are often suspected and identified by the victims and their families. The report found that one in every three murder cases of journalists worryingly include state actors, political parties and/or religious groups. In 60 per cent of the cases the police failed to complete the investigations into the murders, therefore failing to generate a final challan or a full investigation report to submit before a court for trial.

The report added that the single prosecution handed down during the five-year time period amounted to a 3.5% conviction rate. That lone conviction was only handed down at the district court level in KP after which the alleged successfully challenged the conviction in the high court. According to the World Press Freedom Index, Pakistan is ranked at number 142 out of 180  countries, measured in term of providing a safe work environment to journalists.

You may ask why, in a place where many social groups are impacted by murder, journalists should matter in a larger context? I’d argue that the right to freedom of expression  is of particular significance to journalists because safety and security are prerequisites to journalists’ professional duties – especially in Pakistan. Attacks on journalists are attacks on the freedom of expression – and also on civil society and the very state itself. Today, it is not only media but common people losing their freedom of expression to the shrinking space for tolerance in our society. This situation calls for more responsible behaviour from the media.

Along with the social insecurity, Pakistan poses geographical constraints to journalists as well. In our north west region, the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) is a no-go area for the mainstream media due to security threats. Similarly, there is no independent media presence in many districts of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Journalists and newspapers frequently face death threats and pressure from the State as well as non-state actors in both subtle and overt ways. This  often results in censorship and again, proves a major setback to the practice of freedom of expression. If the environment is so unsafe, journalists come to believe that it is simply too dangerous to cover certain topics and resort to self-censorship. In addition to threats and intimidation from different stake-holders, there are no specific laws to safeguard journalists in Pakistan. Media rights fall into the same category as citizens’ rights, and no mechanism therefore exists to funnel any special or urgent cases of journalist safety. This means cases go unsolved and the cases of missing journalists are not put on special motion in the courts where a normal case can linger on for years. It’s a cliché but it’s true; justice delayed is justice denied. And when the voice of the people is stifled because of an ineffective justice system, it paves the way for increasing self-censorship of journalists.

Ethics, credibility and safety are inter-linked in Pakistan. The country also lacks properly trained journalists and there is a dire  need for the formal training of print, electronic and digital media journalists. A journalists’ duty is to truth at the end of the day. But there are other ethical challenges that relate to how the media is funded. In order to carry out their services, media houses rely on advertisements to generate funds. Worryingly, in Pakistan there is an advertisement ‘mafia’ that is considered to  dominate many media companies .The authenticity of journalistic duties is under threat when journalists become answerable to advertising clients and other stakeholders. Often, media houses have to opt between falling short on funds or following the agenda of their advertisers. This creates a major dent on the credibility and sustainability of journalism.

In addition to these issues, independent journalism in Pakistan has not been popular with the state. There is a general attitude of banning and censoring of narratives. Pakistan has been through various episodes of extreme censorship since inception almost. For example, through the ‘1971 Press and Publication Ordinance’ the rulers of the time directly controlled the role of media to serve their own interests.

The formation of an entirely new media policy would provide useful guidelines to journalists and media houses and clearly outline the  government’s role. In line with our usual outlook of sweeping critical issues under the rug rather than finding long-term solutions, the recently passed Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) law focuses on controlling and curbing citizens’ activity online. This law passed from both Houses of the Parliament and has introduced further undertones of censorship to the country. In this context, a unified media policy would help shrink the space of government intervention by clearly stating procedures of how to practice journalism safely and independently within the boundaries agreed to by all stakeholders.

An independent media is the fourth pillar of state and its free and fair deliverance is of utmost importance. Pakistan remains a fledgling democratic state and a strong democracy requires transparency. Transparency is simply not possible without a free, working media.