Reporters without Borders ranks Pakistan as 139 out of 180 countries in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, making it one of the freest in Asia when it comes to reporting on politics.
The report goes even further to say that “The Pakistani media are regarded as among the freest in Asia but are targeted by extremist groups, Islamist organizations, and state intelligence agencies, all of which are on RSF’s list of Predators of Press Freedom”.
The RSF report further states that “Government officials, political parties, and party activists are also quick to harass, threaten, or physically attack journalists regarded as unsympathetic to their views. Inevitably, self-censorship is on the rise within news organizations.”
What the report does not say, is how many journalists and bloggers end up disappearing for stating their criticisms of the government, the military, the Pakistani intelligence agency ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), or Islam.
In September of 2016, Pakistan passed a controversial bill which became law. It is known as the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB). The language in this bill is vague, making it permissible for authorities to use their broad use of powers to censor an individual or group in the name of national security.
What this does, it makes the entire population of Pakistan, along with Pakistani nationals living abroad, targets of Pakistan’s intelligence agency. Thus, making the lives of journalists even more difficult. According to Freedom House, Pakistan is still considered to be one of the most dangerous places for journalists to work.
In 2011, Syed Saleem Shahzad, Asia Times Pakistan Bureau Chief, was murdered after reporting on the terrorist attack on the Mehran Naval base in Karachi. His report claimed that there were members in the Pakistani Navy who were sympathetic to al-Qaeda, and took part in the attack that resulted in the deaths of 18 military personal. Similar to other journalists who have received threatening phone calls. Saleem reported that he started receiving similar calls from Pakistan’s intelligence agency, ISI. He was warned not to publish the second half of his report that accused the Pakistani Navy of being infiltrated by al-Qaeda. Upon release of Saleem’s report, he was kidnapped within 2 days, and his body would be found in a canal 60 miles from the capital Islamabad. The Obama administration believed that Pakistan’s intelligence agency had ordered Saleem’s murder, based on the intelligence and reliable information he possessed. With the killing of Bin Laden in Pakistan by U.S. Special Forces, the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan was already fragile. The U.S. did not want to disclose any further information about allegations between al-Qaeda and the ISI to further drive a wedge between the two nations.
If the murder of Saleem was committed to striking fear in the journalism community, it has worked. Not only has the ISI increased its surveillance of its citizens and journalists, its lead to many journalists censoring their content in fears of a backlash. In February of this year, the Pashtun region of Pakistan had one of the largest protests in Pakistan’s history. None of the top 24/7 Urdu language television channels covered the 10-day peaceful protest. In fears of imprisonment, these media outlets chose to ignore the protests. Native residents of the Pashtun region are demanding justice in regards to a police officer from the City of Karachi, who has been accused of ordering the murder of over 400 people, including a staged encounter where a Pashtun man was killed. These protests were also in relation to the kidnappings of individuals who either end up dead or are never to be seen again.
Self-censorship within Pakistan’s media is a contributing factor of democratic backsliding. The restrictions on the press and the fear journalists have for their lives can be seen in other countries as well. Scott Gehlbach refers to in Reflections on Putin and the Media, that the Kremlin has consolidated its power over the media. Pakistan has not done the same. Pakistan does not get involved with journalists to shape a narrative the way the Kremlin does. Instead, journalists are discouraged from reporting anything that is seen as a criticism of Pakistan.
In this age of strongman politics and fake news echoing all over the world, it makes it easier for politicians to interject and label journalists as an enemy. Further contributing to the erosion of democracy that exists within the country.
It is difficult to say which direction Pakistan will grow. The challenge is differentiating the links ISI has with al-Qaeda and if they are supporting them. Pakistan is unique in the sense it not only shares a border with war-torn Afghanistan but is also facing potential conflict on its east with India. Only time will tell if true democracy can blossom in a country like Pakistan.