Freedom of the Press
You are here
Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Media freedom in Pakistan remained constrained by official attempts to restrict critical reporting and by the high level of violence against journalists. The constitution and other legislation, such as the Official Secrets Act, authorize the government to curb freedom of speech on subjects including the constitution itself, the armed forces, the judiciary, and religion. Harsh blasphemy laws have occasionally been used to suppress the media. Under the 2004 Defamation Act, offenders can face minimum fines of 100,000 rupees (US$1,700) and prison sentences of up to five years; however, this legislation has not yet been used to convict members of the press.
Broadcast media are regulated by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), which has occasionally used its power to halt broadcasts and shutter media offices. Ordinances issued in late 2007 as part of the imposition of martial law barred the media from publishing or broadcasting “anything which defames or brings into ridicule the head of state, or members of the armed forces, or executive, legislative or judicial organs of the state,” as well as any broadcasts deemed to be “false or baseless.” Those journalists or outlets considered to be in breach of the ordinances could face jail terms of up to three years, fines of up to 10 million rupees (US$165,000), and cancellation of their broadcasting license. A special bureau within the Information Ministry was tasked with monitoring the 21 national dailies and 13 leading regional newspapers to ensure that they followed the rules introduced in the print media ordinance. Television networks were taken off the air and required to sign a 14-page code of conduct promoted by PEMRA—in which they agreed to discontinue specific types of programming, such as election-related content, talk shows, and live call-in segments—in order to resume broadcasting. Although the guidelines were routinely flouted in 2009, the Information Ministry served dozens of legal notices accusing broadcasters of violating the code of conduct.
Reform of the legal environment stalled in 2009 despite official promises to rescind the ordinances, and the government continued to engage in sporadic efforts to temporarily suspend certain broadcasts or programs. For example, during March 2009 demonstrations demanding the reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, authorities temporarily shut down the cable service of GEO TV and Aaj Television in several cities around the country—a development that prompted Information Minister Sherry Rehman to resign in protest. A number of stations were also blocked for several hours in the wake of a terrorist attack on the army headquarters in October. Later that month, the National Assembly’s information committee unanimously approved legislation that would allow restrictions on media, including a ban on live coverage of events that the government would not like broadcast, with proposed fines for violators similar to those laid out in the 2007 ordinances. Media watchdogs condemned the proposed legislation, which was pending at year’s end. In November, eight prominent broadcast media houses banded together to draft a voluntary code of conduct for depictions of violence. In general, while political pressure on the media eased, officials and military officers allegedly continued to call and complain about critical coverage.
The physical safety of journalists remained a major concern. Although instances of intimidation by the security and intelligence forces—including physical attacks or arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention—appear to have declined somewhat, Islamic fundamentalists, thugs hired by feudal landlords or local politicians, political party activists, and police harassed journalists and attacked newspaper offices on a number of occasions in 2009. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least four journalists were killed during the year, all in the troubled northwestern region of the country. While some reporters were deliberately targeted, others were killed or injured as they attempted to cover unfolding political events or military operations, or were among the victims of large-scale suicide bombings. Impunity is the norm for such crimes, and many murder cases from previous years remain unsolved.
Conditions for reporters covering the ongoing conflict in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and parts of North West Frontier Province (NWFP) were particularly difficult in 2009, as a number of correspondents were detained, threatened, expelled, or otherwise prevented from working, either by the Taliban and local tribal groups or by the army and intelligence services. In a number of instances, journalists’ homes were attacked by militants in retaliation for their reporting. The takeover of the Swat Valley by Islamist militants had particularly negative implications for media freedom, as the space for independent reporting was constricted and cable television broadcasting was banned. During two major military offensives during the year—against Taliban-affiliated militants in the Swat Valley in April and the South Waziristan tribal area in October—reporters faced bans on access, pressure to report favorably on the offensives, and severe restrictions if they chose to become “embedded” with military units. Dozens of local journalists were forced to flee the area. Foreign journalists sometimes encounter visa and travel restrictions that can inhibit their reporting, and they are subject to arrest and deportation if found in areas that are not specifically covered by their visas. In 2009, a local press report accusing the Wall Street Journal’s correspondent in Pakistan of being a spy led him to leave the country.
Media remain much more tightly restricted in the FATA, where independent radio is allowed only with permission from the FATA secretariat and no newspapers are published, and in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, where publications need special permission from the regional government to operate and proindependence publications are generally prohibited. Coverage of Pakistan’s restive Balochistan province also remains sensitive, with reporters facing pressure from both Balochi nationalists and the government. In August 2009, Balochistan’s widely circulated Daily Asaap suspended publication, citing harassment from the security forces, and remained closed at year’s end.
While some journalists practice self-censorship, a wide range of privately owned daily and weekly newspapers and magazines provide diverse and critical coverage of national affairs. The government continues to control Pakistan Television and Radio Pakistan, the only free-to-air broadcast outlets with a national reach, and their coverage supports official viewpoints. Private radio stations operate in some major cities but are prohibited from broadcasting news programming. However, in a dramatic opening of the media landscape in recent years, at least 25 private all-news cable and satellite television channels—such as GEO, ARY, Aaj, and Dawn, some of which broadcast from outside the country—have arisen to provide live domestic news coverage, commentary, and call-in talk shows, informing viewers and shaping public opinion on current events. International television and radio broadcasts are usually available. In October 2009, PEMRA directed a number of FM radio stations to stop carrying British Broadcasting Corporation programs. Authorities occasionally attempt to exert control over media content through unofficial “guidance” to newspaper editors on placement of front-page stories or permissible topics of coverage. Provincial and national authorities have used advertising boycotts to put economic pressure on media outlets that do not heed unofficial directives, although this tactic appears to have declined recently. Both official and private interests reportedly pay for favorable press coverage, a practice that is exacerbated by the low salary levels of many journalists.The internet is not widely used, with slightly over 11 percent of the population able to gain access, although blogs are growing in popularity and many traditional news outlets provide content over the internet. The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Ordinance, issued in November 2008, criminalized “cyber terrorism”—broadly defined as using or accessing a computer, network, or electronic device for the purposes of frightening, harming, or carrying out an act of violence against any segment of the population or the government—and provided for harsh penalties in cases resulting in a death. The e-mail accounts of some journalists are reportedly monitored. Access to some websites is periodically blocked, particularly those involving Balochi nationalist issues or other sensitive subjects. Following a spate of jokes about the president that circulated via e-mail, in July 2009 the government announced that official agencies had been tasked with tracing such electronically transmitted jokes and that offenders could face a 14-year prison sentence.