The law is what the king says

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan

HRCP fact-finding report highlights worst curbs on freedom of expression

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has launched a fact-fining report about the ‘worst curbs’ on freedom of expression in Pakistan. The report begins by highlighting that recently an overwhelming number of journalists — including reporters, editors and anchors — have spoken about the interference in freedom of expression.

Both print and broadcast media have been badly affected by this development. It is not only journalists but also numerous people involved in the sale and distribution of newspapers from the three biggest groups i.e. Dawn, Jang/ Geo, and Nawa-i-Waqt have confirmed the complaints. Hawkers and retailers have been intimidated and asked to stop the distribution of the above-mentioned newspapers in certain areas, cities, and towns of the country.

The HRCP report was launched at an event held in Islamabad recently. The panel on stage included half a dozen champions of human rights in the country such as Afrasiab Khatak, Farhatullah Babar, I.A. Rehman, Marvi Sirmad, Nasreen Azhar, Saleema Hashmi and Rashed Rahman. These people have stood fast in the face of adversity and intimidation; when most people keep quiet they speak up and put their own safety in danger.

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) is an independent commission striving to highlight human rights violations in the country. It has done invaluable services to the country by collecting qualitative and quantitative data and publishing an annual report on the status of human rights in Pakistan. In addition, it also conducts independent research on specific issues concerning various aspects of discrimination on the basis on gender, religion, or sect. Since its inception it has contributed tremendously in our understanding of social issues. Without HRCP, there would be almost none who could raise their voice against the excesses of state and non-state actors.

The HRCP report is the result of an independent fact-fining mission that was carried out after the HRCP received complaints from various media persons and managements. The exercise was scientifically conducted by using a detailed questionnaire to assess the extent and nature of curbs on freedom of expression. The best feature of the exercise was that it was conducted all over Pakistan i.e. all provinces plus Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) and Islamabad Capital territory (ICT). The worst part is that due to fear of being targeted, many respondents asked to remain anonymous. This shows a frightening picture in which even journalists prefer to remain anonymous.

According to the HRCP report, most respondents have specifically referred to unlawful practices of interference and intimidation. The HRCP particularly mentions interference in the circulation of Dawn and The News and a similar pattern observed in the transmission of Geo TV, which was taken off air repeatedly and then restored. There was no apparent explanation for this disruption. The report claims to have found considerable evidence of undue interference. After the national elections on July 25, 2018, there have been reports of resurgence in curbs on distribution in certain areas, “not just of Dawn, but also The News, Jang, and Nawa-i-Waqt”.

Some newspapers’ distribution was disrupted daily in targeted cities and town. Hawkers and sales agents were subjected to continual harassment, threats, and physical coercion while attempting to deliver copies of these newspapers to regular subscribers. According to the report in some cities, sales agents were approached by plainclothesmen who told them not to sell certain newspapers and asked for information about their subscribers. For example, in Chakdara (KP), Bagh (AJK), and Gwadar, Sibi, and Turbat (Balochistan) the distribution was curtailed repeatedly. In some cantonment areas, hawkers reported being subjected to checks and copies of some newspapers removed from their possession.

In some other examples highlighted by the report, in Mianwali and Okara too, sales agents were threatened for distributing these newspapers. Similarly in Jhelum, Kharian, Lahore, and Rahwali, hawkers were warned not to bring some newspapers in certain areas. In the latest developments, the HRCP report mentions alarming resurgence in curbs on distribution in Lahore – not just of Dawn, but also The News, Jang, and Nawa-i-Waqt. “At least four separate hawkers who distribute these newspapers in DHA report having been instructed by the DHA authorities not to do so.” The situation was no different in cities such as DG Kahn, Faisalabad, Multan, Sargodha and Sarai Alamgir.

“A newspaper distributor in Chiniot was summoned by an inspector and threatened with action if he continued to distribute the newspaper.” This pattern is reported to be widespread in other provinces too. For instance, in Sindh a “sales agent who has operated in the Larkana and Qambar-Shahdadkot districts for over 45 years has been repeatedly threatened and harangued since May, 2018. Since then, he has not been permitted to distribute the newspaper in these districts”. In Hyderabad, Nawabshah, and Panno Aqil too, the sales agents were warned. This all has resulted in the withdrawal or suspension of advertisements, adversely affecting and hampering objective journalism.

The targeted media groups are so much under pressure that some members of their staff have either refused to work or have left. “This has left the newspapers beleaguered, with threats also emanating from religious radicals, separatists, and officials of nationalist or political parties if news on their activities is not published.” A complete ban or reduction in advertising is another threat constantly looming over the targeted media groups. Regarding curbs on transmission in the broadcast media, HRCP has documented several instances in which cable operators say “they were compelled to take certain channels off air”.

Reports from various cities in Punjab and GB confirmed that cable operators were instructed to stop broadcasting Geo News and Dawn News. They had no alternative but to comply with the order for fear of their businesses would be shut down or attacked. The instructions also included orders to specifically place Geo at the end of the list of channels and Bol and ARY at the beginning. The prevailing uncertainty surrounding channels’ ability to broadcast also means that the targeted channels stand to lose long-term advertising contracts. This has affected channels’ ability to remain financially stable and pay salaries on time.

One reason the largest and oldest media groups are being targeted is that it gives a clear message to smaller groups to impose a self-censorship. It means if the largest groups can be victims of arms twisting, the smaller fish has no escape, and they have little choice but to fall in line. The HRCP report does not rely on journalists and hawkers alone, it also took into account the testimonies given by the proprietors of several newspapers. Some newspaper owners have testified to receiving press advice and “being subject to interference and threats”. Non-compliance results in physical threats and loss of revenue.

The HRCP report does not mince any words while pinpointing that the state has to take much of the blame for this sorry state of affairs. If it is not directly involved it must take action against those who are responsible for this highhandedness. Individual journalists are vulnerable, media groups fear reprisals, and the general belief is that it is the worst censorship in the country’s history. Are we living in the 21st century or is it a medieval kingdom where the law is what the king says? We need to make a choice between free media with a proud nation or a subjugated press with a persecuted populace that is deprived of its right to gain objective information and analysis.

By: Dr Naazir Mahmood

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