LAHORE - The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) on Monday called on the federal and provincial governments to take steps to check unauthorised interference in matters relating to the freedom of expression in the country.

The demand was made by IA Rehman and other human rights activists. On this occasion, they shared findings of a survey on curbs on the freedom of expression in Pakistan. They urged the government to protect rights of news channels and newspapers and allow them to function with dignity and peace. There should be no interference in sale and distribution of any newspaper, nor should any TV channels be deliberately displaced, they said.

It was stated that the system of issuing ‘press advice’ or press advice-like ‘instructions’ on part of state agencies must cease immediately.

Rehman said that numerous journalists in the print and broadcast media have been complaining about interference with freedom of expression over the last several months.

They said that after publication of an interview of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif on 12 May 2018, sales agents alleged that distribution of Dawn had been disrupted daily in at least 20 targeted cities and towns.

As far as television channels’ management is concerned, the prevailing uncertainty surrounding their ability to broadcast means they stand to lose long-term advertising contracts.

The systematic curtailment of freedom of expression in the form of press advice, intimidation and harassment, reportedly by state or intelligence agencies, has left many journalists and their management too vulnerable to resist, they said.

They said that verbal press advice received either on the telephone or during a visit usually pertains to what should not be published or broadcast.

HRCP’s interviews reveal that the most commonly tabooed subjects are missing persons, the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), Baloch separatists and rights activists, the Panama trial and NAB references, the disqualification and arrest of Nawaz Sharif, references to any questionable decisions by the judiciary and allegations of judicial overreach.

Another reportedly common piece of press advice to the broadcast media is that the channel should give greater coverage to PTI rallies and only minimal coverage to other parties’ events.

Many print and broadcast journalists say that a common consequence of ‘disobeying’ instructions is vicious character assassinations through anonymous social media accounts and social networking platforms that go so far as to incite violence against media persons – and in the case of women, rape threats. Press advice to social media users, especially those critical of state policies, has also increased.