Pakistan subjected to increased muzzling of media content during 2020-2021

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Islamabad: Pakistan was subjected to increased muzzling of media content in the period January 2020 to April 2021 thus limiting the space for free expression in the country. 

According to the Pakistan Press Freedom Report 2020-2021 released by Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF), while murder, physical assaults, extra-legal abductions as well as threats and arrests of media personnel continued unabated, the past year also saw a focus on attempts to directly control the very content being produced by the media.  Directives issued by the media regulatory bodies, bans on entire platforms and efforts to create rules that enhance legal repercussions have created an environment where the media is censored, and journalists are pushed towards self-censorship.

The report notes that the new challenge was added to the mix with the spread of COVID-19 which has taken the lives of several journalists and media practitioners.  In addition to the safety of journalists from the virus itself, the pandemic has created new challenges in terms of press freedom.   In view of the role of journalists on the frontline and the increased risk of exposure to the coronavirus the report calls for media practitioners be considered as frontline workers and should be given priority in getting protective vaccinations.

As the world increasingly relied on online platforms such as Twitter, in Pakistan, these social media platforms became the source of trolling and coordinated attacks on the media particularly women journalists who were reporting on COVID-19.  In terms of broadcast media, the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) also issued sets of directives for how TV channels were permitted to cover the pandemic.

In the period covering January 2020 to April 2021, Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) has recorded: 1 murder of a journalist due to his work, 10 incidents of arrests and detentions, 4 incidents of abduction and kidnapping, 16 incidents of physical assault, 13 incidents of threats, 4 incidents of raids and attacks, 5 incidents of major internet restrictions or blackouts, 22 directives by PEMRA that curtail free expression, 7 incidents of legal action against journalists and 6 instances of legislative action the negatively affect free expression in Pakistan.

While physical attacks against journalists have continued for decades, there is still no safety bill to protect the media in Pakistan.  PPF has been actively lobbying to push for the passage of the bill and urges the federal cabinet to follow through on this.  In the lobbying efforts, PPF also lobbied with the matter with the Sindh provincial government.  A separate draft bill for the province was prepared and the Sindh government has shown interest in passing this bill at a provincial level. The Pakistan Press Freedom Report 2021 calls for effective national and provincial legislations for protection of journalists and media practitioners must be enacted without any delay. 

Regulatory bodies in the country have acted with overreach and become tools for the government to block content. While PEMRA is the media regulatory body for broadcast media, its directives issued during 2020-21 have been akin to acting as censors on content. PEMRA has slapped blanket bans on topics of coverage that are important current developments in the country. This has resulted in censorship by the media who are unable to cover these developments and inform their audiences. The free flow of information has been restricted by these blanket bans. In just the first few months of 2021, PEMRA has issued directives on coverage of the National Accountability Bureau, banned coverage of the proscribed Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) party, and barred journalists from reporting on sources of cabinet meetings.

Another area of concern are attempts at  legislation to monitor content online.  In January, social media rules and Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020 were approved by the Federal Cabinet under the Pakistan Telecommunications Act, 1996 and PECA. These draconian rules were reported by the media to give a great degree of control to the government in monitoring content.  These rules were met by strong pushback which led to their suspension in March 2020.   In November 2020, the Ministry of Information Technology notified the “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2020”.  These rules have been challenged in the courts.

During 2020, journalists directly felt the brunt of Pakistan Telecommunication Authority’s (PTA) measures to restrict content on social media and to ramp up criminalization of content shared online. Criminal complaints were registered against media workers for content they had shared on social media.

The report has urged that the government must ensure that stakeholders are actively involved in the process of drafting legislations, rules and regulations related to the Internet and social media.

Most importantly the Pakistan Press Freedom Report 2020-20121 has demanded that to end the current state of near-absolute levels of impunity, the federal and provincial governments must ensure credible investigation and vigorous criminal prosecution in all cases involving killing, kidnapping, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture of journalists and media practitioners.

This direct policing of content shared online alongside a growing effort to legislate and create rules to control content on these platforms has resulted in a shrinking space for free expression in the online sphere that was more open and accessible than traditional media. There is increased policing of content online, more restrictive directives issued for broadcast media, and absence of protection for journalists who continue to face violent attacks. The year presents a bleak picture for press freedom in Pakistan!

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