Free press in peril in Pakistan

Critical news coverage is under attack in Pakistan. Aggressive journalists face death threats and the country’s press corps has become increasingly polarized.

Many media critics believe that 2002 was a turning point for the country’s press corps. The country was led by President Pervaiz Musharaf, a four-star general who rose to power in a coup a few years earlier. Many analysts believe the military intentionally introduced new media outlets in order to control the narrative and undermine the country’s independent press.. The military also used various tactics to monopolize mainstream media.

Looking at the state of today’s press in Pakistan, it’s clear that screws are being tightened on journalists through murders, abductions, detentions, threats and lawsuits. About 33 journalists have been killed in Pakistan between 2013 and 2019 and there are more than 148 cases of attacks and violations that took place from May 2020 to April 2021. Some popular anchors that were critical of the military have been taken off the air and some have to worry about their safety. Absar Alam, a senior journalist, was shot and wounded and journalist Asad Ali Toor was recently assaulted by the Pakistani intelligence service. TV anchor Hamid Mir blamed Pakistan’s armed forces for crackdowns on journalists and in return, his popular TV show has also been banned. 

Not only this, but the present government introduced a bill that seeks to criminalize criticism of the armed forces. The bill proposes a two-year jail and 500,000 Pakistani rupees in fines. It violates Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan that grants the right to freedom of speech and expression and freedom of the press.

Likewise, government authorities use the so-called term ‘sensitive issues’ to stifle opposition voices. Many TV networks have been penalized for giving them coverage. These scenarios clearly show that Pakistan presents a dismal failure on the part of the state to honor its commitments to uphold people’s rights to speak in a fearless environment. 

This type of media landscape certainly reflects negatively on Pakistan’s image abroad. In 2018, Pakistan’s ranking on the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Press Freedom Index was 139 but currently, it ranks 145. In the Global Freedom Score, Pakistan ranks 37/100 (Partly Free) and in Internet Freedom, it has a 26/100 score (Not Free). Global Human Rights Defense, an NGO in the Netherlands, demanded the international community stand up for journalists who face threats for running critical coverage of the military.

In terms of media polarization and pluralism, research shows that Pakistan is a “high-risk country.” More than half of ownership is concentrated in the hands of a few. The majority of TV channels and hosts freely criticize elected representatives but do not dare to criticize the military and intelligence services. Since the aim of most of the media groups is to earn revenue through advertising, so they do not go for agitation with the government

With their television audience concentrated in larger cities, news organizations report very little local news, especially from areas where access is difficult and the audience is of little interest to advertisers. About 37.3% of the population in Pakistan lives in urban centers, while 62.7% lives in rural areas, but the rural population is not represented in mainstream media. Journalist groups have little female or minority representation, and rural women are particularly underrepresented in media. 

Meanwhile, religious minorities, indigenous classes, LGBTs, and weak social and cultural groups are ignored in mainstream media. Only one or two ethnic groups control and run media outlets in Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, but they lack diversity and heterogeneous representation based on other numerous cultural and ethnic groups in other areas of Pakistan.

The digital media landscape, such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp, is also dominated by major national television broadcasters and news publishers. Citizen journalists are ignored, which means, neglect of marginalized voices. However, WhatsApp and Twitter are also platforms where non-mainstream Pakistanis can disseminate their perspectives.

Balochistan: one of the most dangerous regions of the world to practice journalism

Many territories and societies do not get the attention of the media. One of them is Balochistan, the largest province of Pakistan area-wise but the smallest population-wise. Here the human rights violations and other serious incidents do not capture the attention of the mainstream media of its own country. 

Many local journalists have been killed in Balochistan without the mainstream media taking much notice. 

For instance, political activist Karima Baloch’s dead body was found in Canada in November 2020, but the Pakistani mainstream media did not give broad, full coverage. 

Likewise, in March 2020, the dead body of Sajid Hussain, the chief editor of the ethnic Baloch news website Balochistan Times, was found in Uppsala, Sweden, but it did not receive wide coverage. 

In contrast, all the TV channels had headlines about the story of a 22-year boy who was killed by the police in Islamabad in December 2020. Whereas a 25-year Baloch student was brutally killed by the Frontier Corps in front of his parents, but mainstream media did not give it the same coverage.

There was inadequate/nonexistent coverage of these deaths in Urdu news, and some sparse/limited coverage in English-language print media. Mainstream, Urdu-language Pakistani TV is the main source of news for Pakistanis. In Pakistan, there are two parallel news universes (English vs. Urdu/indigenous-language media.)

Some argue that national publications and TV networks of Pakistan maintain bureau offices in Quetta (capital of Balochistan), but these offices do not address human rights violations, poverty, food, hunger, widespread deprivation, socioeconomic issues, and so many inequalities and injustices. 

According to BBC, Balochistan remains Pakistan’s most impoverished area despite being rich in gas and coal reserves, as well as copper and gold. People in other provinces of Pakistan do not have much knowledge about the Balochistan province and its people. 

Due to the blackout of the media coverage, the voices of the Baloch ethnic community are not heard at national, regional, and global levels. People normally expect their problems and grievances to be addressed so that the solutions can be proposed for individual’s and society’s well-being. Critics believe that the Pakistani media is not only biased against the issues of the Baloch ethnic group in Balochistan, but it is also under the immense control of the state.

Sometimes, Balochistan becomes the subject of media coverage globally, not due to its deprivation and human rights violations, but because of its abundant natural resources, mines and minerals, global announcements about China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, Gwadar port, and other investment opportunities in the region. But larger humanitarian crises experienced by the people residing in this province is missed. The most compelling evidence is that the Pakistani authorities block foreign journalists, and many foreign journalists in the past have been expelled.

Punjab (land of Punjabi ethnic group) is the most dominant region, and the populous Pakistani province (56%) holds strong authority at the state level, and has the largest representation in parliament, the armed forces, civil and military intelligence, bureaucracy and judiciary. Research findings show that this dominating and major ethnic group does not take into account the political, sociological, economic, and social status of the indigenous and minority groups in Pakistan, including the Baloch population in Balochistan. The people of Balochistan historically feel that Punjab exploits and takes their resources and controls the entire media industry in Pakistan. 

Punjab dominates politically and economically at the expense of all other provinces and territories, including Balochistan, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan. 

Most senior journalists, columnists, anchors, and analysts are retired military and civilian bureaucrats from Punjab. They ignore the issues of people from other ethnic groups and cultures, as happens with minority groups in the US. Punjab’s population is 110 million and Balochistan’s population is only around 12 million — part of why Punjabis are overrepresented is purely because they account for half of the country.

In response to mainstream media’s attitudes, local journalists have taken to alternative media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, online media, and blogging to disseminate their stories and incidents. On one hand, this has attracted foreign sympathy, but on another hand, online media platforms became a new irritant for Islamabad. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority banned most of the local newspapers, online media platforms, and blogging sites in Balochistan. Invisible groups threatened and led to disappearing local and participatory journalists. Pressure groups killed more than 40 local journalists from 2010 to 2017. 

Consequently, the government adopted the Cyber Crime Bill on August 11, 2016, for controlling online and social media. Activists and media practitioners believe this bill controls the right to freedom of expression. On many occasions, resistant groups and political parties boycotted media circulations throughout Balochistan, and closed more than 20 press clubs from October to November 2017. Similarly, Pakistani intelligence agents threatened local journalists not to cover sensitive stories of Balochistan. 

Under these scenarios, Balochistan has been named as one of the most dangerous regions of the world in terms of journalism practices. Owing to restrictions and control on media, the issues of people do not reach outside the world and the large province of Pakistan stays under a media blackout. 

Media analysts warn that if media do not give equal coverage and representation to the people at the national level, it would bring more hostilities and strong uprisings. Meanwhile, the core job of journalists and news organizations is to have a passion for fairness and equality, a desire to make people’s voices heard, but we understand that people of Balochistan do not have influential media platforms. 

These practices endanger the survival of very valuable information and the masses suffer a lot due to the blackout of media. Owing to such attitudes, the Pakistani news media lost trust and credibility in the minds of the public. 

Research shows that the minority ethnic groups, including Balochs in Pakistan, tend to find domestic television less and international television more credible. If media biases and ignore to show miseries, injustices, exploitations, and suppressions of social groups, how can weak and deprived groups survive?