Islamabad - The press freedom in the country has been curbed through a ‘creeping coup’ in the last few years and in the absence of freedom of expression, democracy will become an empty shell, speakers said on Wednesday.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) launched its fact finding report regarding curbs on freedom of expression in Pakistan, where the speakers agreed that press is facing severe pressure from state institutions in the country. Notable speakers and human rights activists discussed the current situation of media which is facing pressure from different groups; however, they remained careful and reluctant in naming the responsible forces trying to curtail the freedom of press.

Talking to media activist I. A Rehman said that no law prohibits distribution of newspapers or the shutdown of any news channel in any locality of the country, but unfortunately such is the case for media in Pakistan. He regretted that the media is being controlled by passing ‘press advice’ on a senior level and by dividing the journalists’ community. “Fear is everywhere and no one wants to speak,” he said.  Leader Awami National Party (ANP) and rights activist Afrasiab Khattak said that the press had been facing the situation of a ‘creeping coup’ in the last four years. 

“HRCP report is an eye opener for everyone and it is the responsibility of all political parties and the civil society to talk about freedom of expression,” he said.  He also said that the organized campaigns against journalists on social media are condemnable. Chairperson HRCP Mehdi Hassan said that media is under pressure and new techniques are being invented to curb the freedom of electronic, print and social media. “We all know who is behind this, and such suffocation was not felt even during the dictatorial regimes of the country,” he said. The HRCP chairperson also said that it is the responsibility of the media to inform people, while it has always faced pressure from government or its institutions.

“Democracy without media is an empty shell,” he said. Pakistan People’s Party leader Farhatullah Babar said that media has adopted self censorship and various serious incidents have not been reported by local media in the country because of pressure on them. He emphasized that civil society and citizens must help to implement the ‘Right to Information’ act at a maximum level. “People who don’t want accountability are behind curbing the freedom of press,” he said. Senior journalist M. Ziauddin said that journalism in Pakistan is currently facing a strange situation which was not even experienced during PPO.

The statement released said that the new government must uphold the freedom of expression across the print and broadcast media to establish its democratic credentials. The commitment to ensure that all state-run media has complete editorial independence is an important and welcome step, but this is still the tip of the iceberg. The government has inherited a difficult situation vis-a-vis curbs on press freedom, but having done so it must now acknowledge and take responsibility for the actions of all state institutions and services in this context. This means investigating allegations of continued unlawful interference with the newspaper distribution among private media organizations.  It will also entail monitoring the press freedom announced for state-run media to see if it extends to areas that the security establishment had set out of bounds for the press. There is no overwhelming evidence that corroborates reports of the systematic, strategic intimidation and harassment of journalists and social media activists – to the point that an increasing number of media persons feel compelled to practice self censorship at the expense of professional, objective journalism.

There appears to be little compunction about intimidating journalists and their families, subjecting them to vicious character assassinations through social media and creating fear through reprisals in the shape of abductions and physical attacks.

Moreover, arbitrary media blackouts of ‘sensitive’ areas notably North and South Waziristan, does not point to free or independent media. HRCP calls on the federal and provincial; government and all other state institutions and services to take appropriate steps to prohibit and prevent unauthorized, illegal interference with the freedom of expression in the country.

There should be no interference in the sale and distribution of any newspaper, nor should any TV channels be deliberately displaced. The system of issuing press advice on the part of state agencies must cease immediately and the complaints documented in HRCP’s report redressed. The state must also set up complete and effective information commissions in each province to implement its obligations under the Right of Access to information Act 2017.