The arrival of the alien radical element in Afghanistan and the brutal demonstration of its power to strike at will at the heart of the country’s democratic process, considerably raises the level of menace. 

In the new millennium, Pakistan has battled a tide of terrorism and violent extremism that has cost tens of thousands of lives and affected millions. A major victim has been the media. Dozens of online information practitioners, including bloggers and social media activists have also been killed, attacked, injured, harassed or faced legal cases for alleged blasphemy or treason in recent years. Between May 2017 and April 2018, at least five journalists were killed; dozens of others attacked, injured, harassed and intimidated and two kidnapped and remain missing.

According to data from the Freedom Network, of the 117 media practitioners killed in Pakistan since 2000, at least 72 were target-killed for their journalism while the rest died in the line of duty in terror attacks and bombings. These high levels of violence and victimisation have ensured that Pakistan has consistently been ranked as one of the ten worst countries in which to practice journalism. The country has one of the lowest indicators of freedom of expression and safe access to information over the past decade. An important indicator of Pakistan’s poor rankings in categories of freedom of expression, safety of journalists and online information practitioners is the incredibly high level of - impunity. The killers of only two (Wali Khan Babar and Daniel Pearl) of the 117 media practitioners killed have been identified, gone to trial and been convicted. This makes Pakistan also one of the worst countries in the world in terms of combating impunity for crimes against journalists and failing to provide them and their families justice, thereby ensuring that journalism and freedom of expression remain threatened.

Ongoing risks

Pakistan continues to have an environment that in general stifles freedom of expression and makes it difficult for the media and its practitioners, particularly journalists, from doing their job. In the period under review, at least five journalists were killed for their work and dozens of others were attacked, injured, harassed and intimidated into either self-censorship or looking out for themselves in an environment where impunity for crimes against them remains high and neither their employers nor the state offers much assistance.

The list of attacks against media practitioners in the period under review is long and the pool of perpetrators and threat actors grew to include, among others, government functionaries, political parties, security agencies, militant groups, religious factions, feudal and business classes and even the judiciary. No place is safe for journalists and media assistants – attacks happened in capital city Islamabad and in all four provinces of Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Sindh as well as in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Gilgit-Baltistan and even Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Crimes against journalists continue to go unpunished, adding to the entrenched impunity.

Media blackout

During November 2017, federal capital Islamabad and adjacent city Rawalpindi saw a protest sit-in at the main interchange between two cities by a religious group, the Labaik Ya Rasool Allah. In order to remove the sit-in, the government launched a crackdown on the protesters on November 25, 2017. Soon thereafter, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), the electronic media watchdog, shut down the transmissions of all private news channels, accusing them of violating the code of conduct on live coverage. A total media blackout left people in the dark about what was happening in major cities across the country, triggering all sorts of speculations. Following the media blackout, the country’s internet and telecom regulator, the Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA) ordered blocking of all social media networking websites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter as well as popular communications apps such WhatsApp.

In the period under review, people faced shutdowns of cell phone networks and internet 17 times in various parts of the country. Cell phone networks were shut down on five occasions in Islamabad and Rawalpindi alone. In addition to these regular shutdowns, various parts of Balochistan province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have faced cellular and internet shutdowns on different occasions in the period under review.

In April 2018, the country’s largest TV channel, Geo News, went off air from large swathes of the country and was available only intermittently for two weeks. While neither PEMRA, which is the sole authority with powers of suspending transmissions, nor the vast, licensed cable distribution network admitted that they had a hand in the blackout, privately the Geo administration admitted that the military was unhappy with its independently policy on content. It appeared that criticism of the military’s role in politics, support for the beleaguered former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his party in the run up to the elections and questioning of controversial judicial activism by the superior judiciary had made the military unhappy. The channel, as reported by Reuters, started coming back online only after striking a deal with the military on changing its contents policy. There was, however, no public or official confirmation of any deal.

Censorship of social media

In the aftermath of the issue of missing bloggers early in 2017, a petition was filed in February 2017 against the bloggers and their role in alleged online blasphemy in Pakistan. The petitioner Salman Shahid, prayed the court to direct the authorities to block all [allegedly] blasphemous pages on the social media besides taking action against those who had developed this content. Justice Shaukat Siddiqui of the Islamabad High Court, while admitting the petition, directed the authorities to block social media pages posting blasphemous and objectionable content.

In March 2017, he ordered the authorities to place names of alleged blasphemers on the Exit Control List, initiate criminal cases against those committing blasphemy and form a joint investigation team (JIT) to look into the matter. The Court also directed Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to set up teams to monitor and scrutinise social media for blasphemous material so that it may be removed. The Court further ordered the Federal Investigation Agency to bring back from abroad bloggers allegedly involved in online blasphemy to initiate proceedings under the law against them. After lengthy proceedings, in August 2017, the Court issued a detailed judgment and exonerated the alleged blasphemers but ordered PTA to identify any NGOs, bloggers and other journalists involved in circulating “blasphemous content” on social media and suggested that the Parliament make the blasphemy law tougher. The court also directed PTA to create a firewall to block unwanted and sacrilegious content in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s official requests to Facebook, Twitter and Google for users’ info, content removal grew in recent times.

Facebook: During the first half of 2017 Pakistan submitted a total of 1,050 requests to Facebook ‘relating to criminal cases’ for user data, referring to 1,540 Facebook accounts, according to Transparency International. During this period, Pakistan also made 399 ‘accounts data preservation’ requests to Facebook in connection with official criminal investigations. Facebook also received 613 requests from Pakistan related to users/accounts. In the same period, Facebook restricted access to 177 places of content upon requests from the Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA) and FIA. The content was allegedly in violation of local laws relating to blasphemy and national security.

Twitter: During the first half of 2017, Pakistan submitted seven information requests to Twitter concerning 60 Twitter accounts according to Transparency International. The authorities in Pakistan also submitted 24 content/account removal requests to Twitter during this period. The government of Pakistan also made two emergency disclosure requests to Twitter.

Google: Pakistani authorities submitted eight user data requests to Google, according to the Google Transparency Report 2017. Pakistan also made 12 user/account requests to Google. Under these requests, the authorities may seek information about multiple accounts. Since 2009, Google received a total of 69 content removal requests, concerning 896 items, from Pakistan. Out of these 69 requests, 14 were submitted to Google during the first six months of 2017. Through these 14 requests, Pakistan asked for the removal of 98 items. Ten out of 14 requests related to items of ‘religious offence’, two were about hate speech and one each about defamation and violence.

Online policing

In the past year, Pakistani authorities increasingly invoked the controversial Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016, to restrict freedom of expression and dissent online by criminalising dissent. There were at least three occasions when the PECA was invoked against journalists, the first time since its inception. In June 2017, Zafarullah Achakzai, reporter at Qudrat Urdu daily, was arrested in Balochistan province by the paramilitary Frontiers Corps under PECA and handed over to the FIA in Quetta for criticising the military, the provincial chief and intelligence agencies for the poor law and order situation. He was released later but still faces criminal charges.

In July 2017, Abdullah Zafar, a reporter for The Nation daily, was picked up outside his home in Karachi, Sindh by security personnel in plainclothes. He was freed after 20 hours in captivity and said that he was tortured and interrogated about his social media posts on “missing persons”. He was also formally booked under the PECA law. In August 2017, Jabbar Umrani, a correspondent for Waqt News channel, was booked in Quetta, Balochistan under the PECA law for violating its statutes banning criticism of security policies online. The FIA registered a case and is investigating Umrani’s social media comments that the authorities find disparaging.

On October 25, 2017, the federal Ministry of Interior announced a plan “to formulate a framework to monitor social media in order to prevent it from being used as a tool to malign national institutions and spread anarchy or extremism in the country.” The announcement said that social media was being “used as a deadly weapon to discredit and destroy leaderships and state institutions and promote conflicts through fake news,” and stressed that like the armed forces and the judiciary, the parliament was also a national institution. The interior minister stressed a need to formulate a framework of guidelines that “maintains democratic freedoms and ensures that no foreign hand or saboteur can use social media to create political chaos, spread extremism or carry out terrorism in Pakistan, or belittle national institutions.” The FIA was directed to formulate this framework for social media monitoring in consultation with all stakeholders including people in the information technology industry, bloggers and social media activists.

Aborted laws

The Pakistan Print Media Regulatory Authority (PPMRA) Ordinance was proposed in June 2017 when news broke about the preparation of a new national level press/print media registration law. According to news reports in September 2017, the federal government was preparing a law on the pattern of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) for the print media. Allegedly, the Federal Ministry of Information, Broadcasting and National Heritage tasked the Press Council of Pakistan (PCP) in March 2017 to prepare a draft of the bill. Media stakeholders, particularly media owners and journalists, strongly reacted to the reported bill, but the State Minister for Information, Broadcasting and Cultural Heritage expressed her ignorance about the preparation of the bill. She ordered an inquiry and immediately suspended an assistant director in her ministry. The committee held Nasir Jamal, the director general of the Internal Publicity Wing of the ministry, responsible for initiating the preparation of the draft bill apparently without the minister’s permission. Later, the government dropped the idea of bringing in the new print media law altogether.

The Sindh Press, Newspapers, News Agencies and Books Registration Act, 2017

According to news reports in September 2017, the Sindh provincial government had prepared a draft law to regulate registration of papers, printing presses, news agencies and books in the province. The Sindh government had reportedly prepared the draft in the wake of the Eighteenth Constitutional Amendment. The draft law, as reported, was aimed at ensuring that every book or paper printed in the province would clearly mention the name of the printer and place of publication, along with the date. The proposed law required every publisher or owner of a newspaper to apply for a declaration [regulated prior permission] and submit an affidavit saying that he will pay salaries to employees as per the Wage Board Award. No further development has been reported.

New wage board for print media workers

On April 18, 2018, the federal government of Pakistan constituted the Eighth Wage Board for Newspaper Employees. The last board was constituted in 2002 and it has taken 16 years instead of five to constitute the latest board. According to a notification issued by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, the board will remain in operation for six months, until October 2018, to complete its task. The 11-member board will be led by Shahid Mehmood Khokhar as the chairman and includes key personalities from the media sector including Hameed Haroon of Dawn media group; Rameeza Nizami of The Nation; Shoaib Uddin of Nawa-i-Waqt; Asif Zubairi of Business Recorder; Mujeeb Shami of Pakistan; Sarmad Ali of Jang; Sahibzada Zulfiqar of Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists; Shafiuddin Ashraf of All Pakistan Newspaper Employees Confederation; Bakhtzada Yousafzai of Aaeen and Nasir Chishti of the Jang Workers Union. The board will suggest a new set of basic minimum wages for journalists and media workers in the print media industry.

Gathering political will

While the constitution of the new Wage Board is a small step forward in ensuring better working conditions for journalists, the same cannot be said in the arena of securing their physical safety. In the context of indicator 16.10.1 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (Number of verified cases of killing, kidnapping, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture of journalists, associated media personnel, trade unionists and human rights advocates in the previous 12 months), there is no dedicated policy in place or any specific procedural, legislative or structural/institutional mechanism at either the federal level or anywhere in the provinces that addresses the issue of combating impunity for crimes against journalists in Pakistan.

However, commitment exists. In 2012, the United Nations developed the UN Plan of Action on Safety of Journalists and Issues of Impunity aimed at helping states improve an enabling and safer environment for journalists and journalism. Pakistan was selected as one of the five pilot countries for its implementation. Pakistan endorsed the Plan in 2013 and committed itself to, among other things, legislate for the safety of journalists and other information practitioners and improve the state’s capacity to combat impunity and provide special mechanisms for safety of journalists.

While provincial governments, legislatures and political parties have, in general, expressed commitments to enacting special laws on safety of journalists and to, therein, provide effective and responsive mechanisms to combat impunity of crimes against journalists and other information practitioners, a critical mass or a demand for a special provincial law on safety of journalists and information practitioners is missing. Detailed and comprehensive empirical data and analysis on the scale of threats and attacks against journalists, particularly in the context of tracking impunity in the justice system is missing, as is adequate documentation on the process of access to justice for key cases of attacks against journalists and information practitioners in the provinces. Data collected against representative cases on the issue of impunity – with the help, perhaps, of a specialised impunity index – can help provide a gap analysis of the justice system for attacks against media practitioners. This empirical-based analysis can hugely facilitate increased accountability in Pakistan and help protect freedom of expression in the provinces.