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Bullets for Tweets: Press Freedom in Pakistan (Opinion)

A few days ago, I called on Absar Alam, a senior journalist and former Chairman of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) after he was shot by an unknown assailant in a park near his home in Islamabad.

Absar Alam. Source: Caren Firouz/Reuters

Witnessing a senior journalist recover from a recent bullet wound was a surreal lesson in the state of press freedom in Pakistan.

Violence seems like a common facet in the lives of Pakistani journalists who refuse to submit to the established norm of self-censorship entrenched in fear.

On 18th April 2021, Absar Alam had publicly named a serving general for his alleged involvement in the media coverage of the TLP Dharna in November 2018.

Just two days later, Absar Alam was shot in Islamabad.

In the aftermath of the shooting, a small but distinct number of journalists and social media influencers expressed doubts over the shooting, claiming that Absar Alam wasn’t even shot.

Even after a picture of the bullet wound was shared on social media, the trolls who worked systematically continued to downplay the shooting and challenge Absar Alam’s credibility as a journalist.

Just weeks earlier, Matiullah Jan, another outspoken journalist who has done excellent reporting on Qazi Faez Isa’s case was kidnapped outside his wife’s school in Islamabad. He was later tortured before being released.

Prime Minister Imran Khan termed Matiullah’s abduction as a joke, completely disregarding the facts of the case and finding comfort in a self-created fantasy where journalists are free to report as they please in Pakistan.

Hamid Mir. Source: AFP.

A few years earlier, Hamid Mir, Pakistan’s leading political talk show host was also shot multiple times in Karachi. Mir’s brother had blamed Pakistan’s omnipotent establishment, a claim which was run by the news organisation Hamid Mir was affiliated with.

This led to a targeted campaign against the news organisation for several years before the situation deescalated.

More recently, Mir Shakil ur Rehman, the editor in chief of the largest media organisation of Pakistan, Geo News (also Hamid Mir’s employer) was arrested in a 34 year old property case.

Mir Shakil ur Rehman. Source: Geo News.

Even MSR’s worst critics agreed with the fact that he was being victimised by Imran Khan’s government.

After several months, MSR was released from custody but a very clear message was sent to the media fraternity of Pakistan.

Even the most powerful media mogul could not protect himself from a frivolous case, even the most famous journalists are shot in Karachi and Islamabad, no one is safe and anything can happen to anybody.

The international realm took notice of the deteriorating state of press freedom in Pakistan.

Pakistan fell three spots in Reporters without Borders’ Press Freedom Index to number 145. We rank below South Sudan, Uganda and even Columbia which is infested by narco-violence.

But not much heed is paid to the cries of independent observers or international organisations.

To retain the dysfunctionality of Pakistan as a security state embroiled in global conflicts, eroding press freedom seems like a reasonable bargain for the manufacturers of our current order.

And while journalists remain at the receiving end of violence, this is not the only discomfort they must face.

Targeted campaigns calling certain journalists ‘anti state’ by trolls that systematically toe the line of the establishment sends a very intimidating message to reporters on the ground.

Whilst reporting on any story even minutely related to the establishment, many reporters including myself undergo complex mental gymnastics to determine what can be said and what must be left out.

Is it a reasonable expectation for journalists to risk their lives merely to report a story? Or for sharing facts they are privy to?

Whilst I was doing a Master’s degree in Interactive Journalism from City, University of London, I could not have imagined the level of risk for journalists in Pakistan.

We were trained to report objectively, we were taught journalism ethics, media law, and digital media but journalism school does not teach students how to evade the writ of sensitive forces that don’t hesitate to use violence to amplify their worldviews.

And so, journalists operate in a state of eternal confusion over what can be said and what can’t.

This leads to a dysfunctional state where the media is artificially controlled not only through the threat of violence but also through the allure of government-backed advertisements.

This dysfunctionality leads to a media ban on a three-time elected prime minister, while a self-professed terrorist gets valuable air time on mainstream television. Even the surreptitious escape of the said terrorist does not attract media coverage for reasons that are best ignored at this time.

There is a silver lining though, a chance to rectify the mistakes of the past and a shift from geopolitics to geo-economics, eloquently described by Pakistan’s all-powerful army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

In an off the record meeting, an olive branch was extended to some journalists and a new vision for peace in the subcontinent was shared, a vision that has been welcomed not only in Pakistan but also in important capitals like London, Beijing and Washington.

However, for this vision to translate into reality, a free press without any violent or financial coercion is an absolutely essential element.

Till journalists receive the gift of bullets for tweets, Pakistan will remain a dysfunctional country, stuck in the hangover of global conflicts while the world moves on to bigger and better things.

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