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Journalism unfiltered: Press freedom in Pakistan

World Press Freedom Day: The right to report the truth

Today — May 3rd, 2020 — is World Press Freedom Day. A day to remind us of the importance of a free press. A press free from fear, free from censorship, and free to report the truth. 

Here in Australia, we enjoy the benefits of a mostly free press. Ranked #26 in the world for press freedom, Australia’s journalists are typically free to report the news without fear of censorship — or worse. 

But in countries like Pakistan, press freedom is in rapid decline. The 2018 Pakistani general election marked the start of a downward spiral for press freedom in Pakistan — the beginnings of an effort to incite doubt whenever and wherever possible. Making people doubt journalists. Making journalists doubt themselves. With doubt in the minds of the public and the press, it doesn’t matter if you’re playing by the rules — nobody can call you out.

Pakistani journalists have been complaining about an uptick in harassment and intimidation by security forces, but the longer-term effects of censorship are more insidious — and they’re still unfolding.

“I have seen it grow exceptionally, and in recent years it has changed from blatant harsh censorship to a form of censorship that is more mentally abusing,” said Arfaana*, a Pakistani journalist who wishes to remain anonymous.

Cycles of intimidation, inflammation, and idiocy leave question marks over the heads of journalists, bleeding away the comfort and confidence needed for robust reportage.

No publication, regardless of size or reputation, has managed to avoid scrutiny. Dawn, Pakistan’s largest English language newspaper, started restricting its distribution in 2018 amidst widespread dissension over press freedom.

“In Pakistan, journalists used to be very strong, but I think that has been taken away from them now.”

Journalists have learnt there are certain things you can and can’t say. Saying the wrong thing might get your salary suspended, perhaps get you fired — and some things might even get you killed.

“One of my stories was taken down within an hour or two,” said Arfaana.

“They called my editor and told them ‘you know she’s a girl she should be careful what she writes’.”

For women in Pakistan, censorship is particularly punishing. Only a quarter of women in Pakistan are a part of the workforce. This, coupled with journalism’s inherent risks, means a journalistic career can feel unapproachable for women.

“It is already really hard for women in Pakistan to go and work and in a field like journalism where you have to be outside on the roads all the time,” said Arfaana.

“[Women] are really unsafe especially given their gender and it is really hard for them to convince their families to let them to work.”

Survival through self-censorship

The lack of support from the government is suffocating Pakistani journalism, and for now reporters at the vanguard are having to resort to self-censorship. Self-censorship is seen as a way of helping (and protecting) yourself, not only from physical violence and harassment, but also from getting pushed out of the public eye. A single story could attract enough scrutiny to stop you from working — and in journalism, not working leaves you more vulnerable than anything else.

“If you’re a journalist not working then nobody knows who you are, right? Nobody knows if you’re gone.”

It’s these intensely hostile conditions which have driven some Pakistani reporters to start working from outside the country, in places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Another Pakistani journalist, Bashira*, is currently working out of Dubai. She said she can’t see herself returning home to Islamabad any time soon.

“It’s bad for everyone, but women are not safe on the road,” Bashira said.

“I don’t know if I’d tell a young girl to pursue journalism. But then again, they wouldn’t need me to tell them — their family would.”

Reporting on a country you’re not in is unusual, not to mention thoroughly suboptimal — but in this case, it’s necessary. The internet smooths over some of the cracks, but working remotely introduces bumps to the journalistic road that can’t always be avoided.

Pakistan has relatively low internet connectivity, and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has banned over 900,000 websites as of 2019. Internet access is severely — and deliberately — limited, so attempts to make telecommunications a viable work around for censorship will need to outpace the PTA’s pro-censorship efforts.

“Technology can give an extra layer of comfort,” said Bashira. 

Technology and press freedom

For journalists in Pakistan, technology is a tool to help insulate themselves from the rampant efforts to gag dissenting voices, stories, and events. But technology isn’t a perfect solution — and once a story is published, your byline is sitting right next to it no matter what. There’s no going back.

Technology can’t fix issues of censorship and oppression at the publication level — that’s a different battlefront. However, what tech can do is make sure newsgathering is as safe, secure, and comfortable as possible.

While Australia’s press may be free, we did slip 5 positions in the 2020 Press Freedom Index, down to #26 from our previous rank of #21. Press freedom is under constant assault from those who would do harm to our democracy. This World Press Freedom Day, remember the benefits of a free press — the benefits of journalists free to report the news without fear or favour.

*For their safety and anonymity, the names of interviewees have been removed from this article and will not be revealed.