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Journalist Safety, Welfare and Protection Bill: inclusion of digital safety of journalists

This blog has been written by Sindhu Abbasi, Member of  DRF’s Network of Women Journalists for Digital Rights.

At least 26 journalists have been murdered for their journalism work in Pakistan in the period 2013-18, according to tracking and verification done by Freedom Network. After five years of implementation and endorsement of UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, the state has failed to prevent the high levels of risks and threats faced by journalists or reduce the high levels of impunity enjoyed by their killers.

Other than the physical risks and harassment that journalists face, online violence is a phenomenon that is spreading throughout the world and now constitutes a major threat to press freedom. Online violence often translates to offline violence and leads to self-censorship among the journalists and also has a deterrent effect. Even journalists who have never been harassed may be discouraged from covering sensitive subjects or from posting too often on social media networks, if they come across incidents of harassment of other journalist.

Considering the current situation, there is a dire need for the government to pass the pending bill on journalist safety, protection and welfare. Like the previous government, the incumbent government has also promised to bring a comprehensive bill to addresses the myriad of issues facing journalists in Pakistan, especially security and salary issues. The Journalist Safety, Welfare and Protection Bill draft recommends constitution of a body to oversee issues such as compensation to journalists who sustain injuries in the line of work, building “safe houses” for journalists under threats, etc. What is missing in the “protection” part are how to deal with threats journalists have and continue to face on online and digital spaces.

Last year, several journalists and social media users actively tweeting about politics were summoned by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to “explain” their apparently anti-state or incendiary tweets. The journalist community strongly protested the action and termed it as an act of harassment and intimidation against media.

Journalists and media houses have also come under unprecedented threats by the powers that be whenever they dared air or say something considered against the national interest.

Apart from the state and its various institutions, journalists also continue to face trolling, fake social media campaigns against them, and sometimes even their personal details spread on online platforms. Despite all these issues, the journalist safety bill does not even mention ways to tackle with the online violence and intimidation faced by media persons. The lack of any clause or recommendation on the subject unfortunately once again shows that government institutions have still failed to realised the potential of threats in digital spaces to translate into real physical violence. This, despite the fact, that the government has emphasised on promoting IT and technical advancement in state and federal institutions.

In countries like Pakistan and India, where modernisation in true sense has failed to keep up with digitisation, it is imperative for government to realise the threats online spaces can pose to journalists, and those advocating for rights for all. The bill should explicitly include details and clauses to tackle violence and threats both by non-state actors and any other functionary of the state.

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