Next to the right to life, the most critical fundamental right is the right to freedom of expression. Fundamental rights, whether of women, non-Muslims, children, domestic workers, transgender citizens, or calls for rule of law and an end to enforced disappearances, is made possible only if there is freedom of expression. Curb this freedom, and all other rights are automatically extinguished.
Lately, the steady decline in freedom of expression in general, and of the media in particular, has become a major human rights issue in the country. While he was a leader of the opposition, Imran Khan had denounced censorship as “a weapon employed by weak regimes” and attributed his rise to the power to free media. This was witnessed by the public during the no-holds-barred coverage of his party’s 2014 dharna in the federal capital. It is, therefore, ironic that the same man is now resorting to censoring the media.
It will be useful to recall some recent examples: curtains were suddenly drawn on former President Asif Zardari’s interview within minutes of its transmission; nearly two dozen TV channels were served show-cause notices for covering a live press talk by Maryam Nawaz, and some were completely taken off air. A few hours before the PM arrived in the United States, one channel was taken off air in many parts of the country; its number on cables was changed so that viewers could not access it easily.
Media persons talk of controlling editorial content in the name of ‘advice.’ Phone calls are placed to news desks and media house owners to drop certain stories and give others a particular spin. Media houses have become so accustomed to this that they themselves censor content for fear of antagonising officials. This is against journalistic norms.
This is organised censorship of a kind never experienced before. Practices adopted range from self-censorship to muting critical comments to economic strangulation, rendering a large number of media persons jobless, to a smear vilification campaign on social media against journalists refusing to fall in line.
Displeased with the management of electronic media, Justice Faez Isa of the Supreme Court observed during a hearing in the Faizabad dharna case recently: “You want to make channels bow down, so that they say what you want them to say. Is this Pakistan? Did we gain independence for this?” Not long thereafter, Justice Isa himself faced a presidential reference.
Within a year the PTI government has made two most damaging moves to curb freedom of expression. First, early this year it approved creation of the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA) by amalgamating all media regulatory bodies in one. No cogent reason was given as to why it was considered necessary.
The manner in which the proposal for this new body has come about is intriguing. In late 2017, when the PML-N government was beleaguered, reports surfaced of a draft law to set up a Pakistan Print Media Regulatory Authority, and replace the Press Council Ordinance and the Newspapers, News Agencies Registration Ordinance of 2002. When the media protested, the then minister of state for information denied her ministry’s role in drafting the bill. The proposal was shelved but the mystery behind who initiated the draft legislation remained unsolved.
When the PTI government took over in August last year, one of its earliest moves was to revive the shelved plan to “provide for the development of electronic, print and digital media.” Many were surprised because the mysterious proposal had already been disowned and shelved by the previous government. Could there be some other elements behind it and the new ‘selected’ government too readily embracing it?
The other anti-media move by the PTI government is the recent proposal for setting up special media courts on the pretext of protecting media workers’ rights. Media workers did not demand this, neither were they consulted about it. Similarly, there is no clear explanation as to why this new body is needed, when the Press Council of Pakistan, Commission of Complaints, Wage Board Implementation Tribunal and other laws and forums exist for resolution of such conflicts.
During his US visit, PM Imran Khan claimed that there was no censorship in the country. In a joint press conference with Donald Trump, he declared: “To say that there are curbs on Pakistani press is a joke.” In a subsequent interview, he said that media in Pakistan “is not just free but it is out of control,” claiming that it was freer than the media in UK.
It did not occur to him that the British media was free to greet the new prime minister with “a clown has been crowned” as its headline. Either Imran Khan does not know the ground realities, or he was simply doing what he was told to do.
Apart from content control, the media is under physical siege also. According to a recent study by the Freedom Network, 26 journalists were murdered in Pakistan in the last five years. Nearly all have ended up as blind murders and no one was punished. Only conviction was awarded by a lower court and it was overturned.
Next to the media, civil society organisations and human rights defenders have a critical role in defending fundamental rights of citizens. They can perform their functions only in an environment of free expression. Unfortunately, they too are under siege. International NGOs have been banished and curbs placed on national NGOs through executive orders instead of making bipartisan legislation for smooth functioning and oversight. Shrinking space for NGOs has also stifled dissent and freedom of expression.
Human rights defenders need state guarantees for their right to life, freedom of expression and protest, freedom to communicate with international bodies, the right to receive funds and the right to an effective remedy.
The year 2018 was the 70th anniversary of Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was also the 20th anniversary of adoption by UN General Assembly of UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. However, Pakistan has voted against a UN resolution recognising the role of human rights defenders and seeking protection for them.
The steep erosion of the right to freedom of expression by media, civil society organisations and human rights defenders is the hallmark of the first year of Naya Pakistan.
The writer is a former member of the Senate Committee on Information