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Press freedom in Pakistan

May 3, 2012

Today, Pakistani journalists enjoy a lot more freedom to report and say what was unthinkable for them in the past. But this freedom comes with perils.

Image: AP

Pakistani journalists have every reason to celebrate the World Press Freedom Day on Thursday, the May 3rd. They have come a long way from the 1980s' authoritarian era of the Islamic military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq. Today, the Pakistani media enjoys a great amount of freedom to criticize governments, politicians, the country's powerful military and its ubiquitous intelligence agencies including the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). A decade ago, all this was unimaginable.

But this freedom has a price. The Islamic Republic of Pakistan has become freer yet more insecure for journalists.

A recent UNESCO report ranks Pakistan "the second most dangerous country for journalists the world over" after Mexico. According to the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA), 17 journalists were killed in the whole of South Asia in 2011, out of which 12 were killed in Pakistan.

Nasir Tufail, a Karachi-based journalist, who works for Geo TV, told DW that the Pakistani media was "definitely freer than before," though "not absolutely free."

Freedom to die

Tufail said the most perilous issue for the Pakistani journalists was to report on issues regarding terrorism and Islamism, and the journalists who were working on these issues had to be very cautious.

Slain Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud talking to journalists in South-Waziristan
Journalists are threatened by both militants and Pakistani security officialsImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Imtiaz Alam, Secretary General of SAFMA, also said both state and non-state elements were against press freedom in Pakistan.

"So many journalists in Pakistan have been killed yet nobody has ever been brought to justice for these murders. The recommendations of the judicial commission investigating Saleem Shahzad's murder (allegedly killed by the ISI) have never been implemented," said Alam.

The local and foreign media, according to Tufail, relied mostly on few journalists while reporting on the restive north-western tribal areas of Pakistan. Most journalists could not even enter these areas; therefore it was impossible to get reliable news about the Taliban and the "war on terror."

"In most parts of Balochistan, where the military is operating against separatists, most journalists can't even think of going there. How can you expect independent reporting from them?" Tufail questioned.

Financial dependence

For Alam, freedom of media in Pakistan means freedom of media owners.

Murdered Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad
Human Rights Watch has accused ISI of a role in Shahzad kidnapping and murderImage: dapd

"The marketing staff decides the editorial content. Most owners of media companies are blackmailers. Pakistani governments are afraid of them. Governments can't implement wage laws in these organizations. Most journalists work for inadequate salaries and have contractual jobs," said Alam. All these factors undermined press freedom.

Pervez Shaukat, president of Federal Union of Journalists (FUJ), told DW that despite the fact that media in Pakistan was relatively free compared with before, Pakistani journalists did not enjoy economic freedom.

"Only three big media companies in Pakistan pay their employees well. But even they complain about not getting their salaries on time. A lot of workers are being sacked for the sake of profits," said Shaukat.

What is foremost for media organizations in Pakistan, said Tufail, was the "saleability" of the topics being presented.

"We highlighted the issue of Balochistan for several months. We tried to analyze it in a serious manner. But in Pakistan people are so insensitive and apathetic about Balochistan that they don't even want to think about it. Similarly, many people were killed in Gilgit in sectarian violence recently, yet we can't tell people what is happening there because it is not sellable," said Tufail.

Despite these odds, journalists like Tufail are optimistic about the future of media in Pakistan.

"The struggle to report independently and objectively will continue. What we have achieved is the result of our decades-long battle against suppression, and our longing for freedom," asserted Tufail.

Author: Shamil Shams
Editor: Sarah Berning