[This is an excerpt from an article in the current edition of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs. Opinions expressed in articles do not reflect the editorial position of the Round Table.]
Pakistan’s media freedom has always remained at stake. Several recent reports show how vulnerable Pakistani media are to attacks from various sources. According to the Pakistan-based Freedom Network, there were 91 attacks on media institutions in 2020. On 21 February 2021 groups of nationalist people ransacked the Jang-Geo media group’s office, damaging gates and windows and beating up staff members.
The attack was provoked by a humorous programme called ‘Kabarnaak’ hosted by a senior journalist called Irshad Bhatti. This show uses sarcasm in exposing injustice in society. In one episode, the discussion was directed towards Sindh and its politics, including its ruling party, but when, in a light moment, a remark was made about a certain community with some punning, there was an outrage which soon spread to social media platforms. Bhatti explained his words and even apologised, but to no avail. The clip, taken out of context, was repeatedly circulated on social media and protesting nationalist groups began attacking the office of Geo TV making those inside scared for their lives. Notably, although the police and other law enforcement agencies knew about the attacks – including the throwing of stones – they did nothing.
When a government minister, Nasir Hussain Shah, arrived on the scene and talked to the media he said that the state had had information about the protest, albeit at a designated spot close to the Karachi Press Club, they did not know that the protesters would reach the Geo office. The question that many people asked in the face of this statement was: is if the Government and police knew about the protest why were they not prepared for it? No one, alas, took the responsibility for the protest.
Interestingly, all this happened during daytime when there would be a full complement of staff, including male and female reporters, some in the middle of shift changes. The protesters had abruptly gathered and forced their way into the office and damaged the front desk and other property. The staff felt besieged and felt scared for their lives. The protestors remained on Geo TV premises for almost two and a half hours. Even after the police and government officials reached the spot, no action was taken to disperse the protesters.
Only when the protesters started scattering themselves after their violent show of force did the police make a few arrests. A day later, all of them were released on bail.
The Deputy Bureau Chief of Geo News, Tariq Moin is reported to have said: ‘Everyone has the right to protest and if they had any query, we would have listened. They could have issued a statement condemning the show but they choose to physically attack the Geo news office’. He called for defence of freedom of expression and for greater tolerance.
More broadly, he bemoaned a growing diminution of media freedom and cited several examples of fatal attacks on journalists such as Wali Khan Babar, a senior reporter of Geo News, Musa Khankel, a journalist covering the Northern Areas, and many others who were targeted, killed and thus forced into silence. There have also been many indirect threats against the media. All of these have had a chilling effect on freedom of expression.
According to interviews conducted by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, while the number of violent attacks may have come down over recent years, a cause for worry is that the tactics of the attackers have changed. The powerful regime in Pakistan, they said, has now switched to a more sophisticated kind of intimidation that involves controlling the media outlets and distribution networks. Online harassment of journalists by state supporters and the pulling of government advertisements are not uncommon, leading some reporters and media outlets to opt for self-censorship to avoid layoffs, said Daniel Bastard who heads the Asia-Pacific desk of another press watchdog, Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF). But statistics on physical attacks are still deeply worrying. Between May 2019 and April 2020, there have been more than 90 cases of attacks and violations against members of the press in Pakistan, according to the Freedom Network. Seven journalists were killed, and more incidents were reported after their study was released, including two murders in Balochistan (one of whom was a women journalist).
Fauzia Shaheen is the editor of Dastak Magazine, Pakistan and a vice president of the Commonwealth Journalists Association.