Pakistan is one the most dangerous countries for journalists and when we talk about women journalists, they are faced with additional risks and threats owing to the specificity of their gender. The situation is particularly stark for women journalists belonging to conservative parts of Pakistan, where women who speak up are considered to lack values and ethics and are subjected to different forms of violence.
Freedom of expression has been under constant threat in Pakistan and over the years the situation has only worsened with new and more coveted forms of silencing techniques. For journalists, challenging the popular narrative means risking their life for something that costs nothing but a pen filled with the ink of their own blood.
The new and emerging forms of violence and harassment faced by journalists in online spaces means that the space which was initially thought to be safe, especially by women, has proved otherwise. Many journalists are forced into self-censorship, especially on matters related to national security and questioning the state narrative. The brutal lynching of Mashal Khan, a student of Peshawar University, in April 2017, after he was accused of posting blasphemous content from his social media accounts – accounts that he claimed were fake, provides evidence to the fact that there is zero tolerance for dissent. A mere allegation, a hacked account, or a fake account in one’s name is enough for the pronouncement of guilt, which can lead to legal consequences, and even death at the hands of a mob.
The recent ban in US on CNN’s correspondent, Jim Acosta, from entering the White House has reignited the fears that Mr. Trump has little or no regard fro press freedom and is intent on limiting space for critical reporting. During a news conference Jim Acosta had asked the president about his reference to migrants travelling towards America as an invasion which brought him in the president’s line of fire. In response to the ban, CNN has sued six White House and Secret Service Staff, including the president. The recent episode highlights the alarming situation of journalists across the world and how states are intolerant towards the journalists who strive to bring to the public the truth. A UNESCO report cites Gallup polls of residents in 131 countries across all regions which suggests that there is a general perception of declining media freedoms across many countries.
To understand and recognize the extent of violence faced by journalists, one doesn’t need to look at killings of journalists in the past, including the murder of Daniel Pearl, South Asia Correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, as recent incidents are brutal enough to highlight this. The brazen murder of Jamal Khashoggi, journalist of the Washington Post by Saudi intelligence personals highlights the substantial rise in forms of violence by both state and non-state actors.
The situation is no different in Pakistan – journalists are forced into self-censorship as the only viable option as dissent can mean life risk. In the year 2017, four freelance journalists and bloggers were allegedly abducted by security agencies, which led to a discussion about the freedom of expression in the country. Grave concerns were expressed over the journalist, Cyril Almeida’s, name on the Exit Control List (ECL) and institution of a high treason case against him only for performing his professional journalistic duties. We have also seen that Talat Hussain, a renowned news anchor, was fired from a private news channel; Matiullah Jan and Nusrat Javaid have also been victims of harassment. Pakistan is considered one of the most dangerous countries for journalists in the world where Journalists from Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are the most vulnerable in facing all forms of harassment. It is the need of the time that Pakistan should bring legislation for the safety and protection of the journalists and take active measures to put the legislation to implementation in its efforts to respect media for freedom of media is a necessary component for democracy.
This blog has been written by Jalila Haider, Member of DRF’s Network of Women Journalists for Digital Rights.