Freedom of the Press
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Media freedom remained restricted in 2013 as journalists continued to face a high level of violence and threats from a range of sources, including the military, intelligence services, and militant groups. Voters generally had access to pluralistic news coverage during landmark elections in May, though threats from armed groups prompted outlets in some areas to limit their election reporting.
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. National security laws were increasingly used to prosecute journalists in 2013. In May, police in Balochistan filed complaints against seven newspapers for violating Pakistan’s terrorism laws after they published a press release by banned militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Media organizations can face violence if they fail to acquiesce to such groups’ demands. In 2011, there were some calls to reform the laws on blasphemy, which can be punished with life imprisonment or the death penalty, but several prominent politicians who spoke out in favor of reform were threatened or killed by extremists, deterring further discussion of the issue. Under the 2004 Defamation Act, offenders receive minimum fines of 100,000 rupees ($1,100) and prison sentences of up to five years, but the legislation has not yet been used to convict journalists. Since 2010, broadly defined contempt laws have been employed by the judiciary to curb reporting on particular cases or judges, and a number of print and television outlets as well as other critical voices have been threatened or charged with contempt.
Accessing official information remains difficult, and existing provisions for obtaining public records are ineffective. In 2011, the government directed public employees to refrain from giving “embarrassing” information to the media. In July 2012, the Senate formed a subcommittee tasked with developing new freedom of information (FOI) legislation alongside the Information Ministry. After eight months of deliberations, the subcommittee approved a bill designed to replace the 2002 Ordinance on Freedom of Information. Critics of the draft objected to its sweeping exemptions on matters including national security, economic affairs, and international relations. In October 2013, the minister for information and broadcasting assured the media at a press conference that the bill was receiving due attention in Parliament and further input from civil society, but no further progress was made by year’s end. At the provincial level, the governments of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa passed FOI legislation in December, but the ordinances faced criticism for vague language and a large number of exemptions.
The Press Council of Pakistan (PCP) was officially established through a 2002 ordinance, comprising a mix of industry representatives and nominated members from various societal groups. After almost a decade, it finally began functioning in late 2011, with the mission of hearing complaints against the media and promoting journalistic ethics. In December 2012, the PCP approved a journalistic code of ethics for coverage of the 2013 general elections.
Broadcast media are regulated by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), whose members are appointed or approved by the government and which has a record of using heavy-handed tactics to curb broadcast outlets. PEMRA officials in 2013 continued to temporarily suspend certain broadcasts or programs under media regulations, including an official code of conduct, or through the ad hoc denial of broadcast rights or blockage of transmissions around sensitive events. In November, PEMRA fined 10 entertainment television channels 10 million rupees ($160,000) for violating the code of conduct by exceeding the limit on foreign content, set at 10 percent of total airtime in a 24-hour period. In December, the government that was elected in May dismissed PEMRA chairman Chaudhry Rashid Ahmed—who had been appointed in January by the previous government—in a move that the opposition alleged was designed to assert the ruling party’s influence over the regulatory body. The Islamabad High Court quickly reinstated Rashid, and the government had yet to file an appeal at year’s end.
Political actors, government officials, and military and intelligence officers regularly complain about critical reporting, and some have attempted to exert control over media content through unofficial “guidance” to newspaper editors on placement of front-page stories and permissible topics of coverage. Fear of reprisals has caused some journalists to self-censor, particularly concerning military or intelligence operations, sensitive social or religious issues, and certain militant groups and political parties. Cable television operators occasionally pressure media outlets to censor views that could conflict with their business interests.
Websites and blogs addressing sensitive subjects, especially Balochi separatism, are routinely blocked, and the government has increased censorship of allegedly blasphemous material in recent years. Popular websites including Facebook, YouTube, and Wikipedia were temporarily blocked along with hundreds of others during a weeks-long crackdown in 2010. Following their restoration the same year, the government began periodic monitoring of major websites for offensive content. In 2012, the Ministry of Information Technology requested proposals from private-sector companies on projects to strengthen the government’s monitoring infrastructure. In 2013, the ministry deployed technology provided by the Canadian firm Netsweeper, allowing it to monitor and block an unlimited number of websites across the country with greater ease; it also expanded efforts to censor mobile-telephone content. YouTube remained inaccessible after the government blocked it in September 2012 in response to unrest surrounding a controversial anti-Islam film. In March, the Pakistani internet freedom organization Bytes for All filed a petition with the Lahore High Court for the government to end its ban on YouTube, claiming that it constituted a violation of freedom of expression under Article 19 of Pakistan’s constitution. The case was referred to a larger bench in October, and no decision was made by year’s end. In July, the director general of the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority claimed in court proceedings that Facebook had entered into an arrangement with the government to block “undesirable” content.
Online surveillance is a growing concern, and the e-mail accounts of some journalists are reportedly monitored. In 2013, a Canadian watchdog group detected the presence of the powerful surveillance software FinFisher on the network of Pakistan’s state-owned internet service provider (ISP), the Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL). The British-designed software has highly intrusive capabilities, including logging keystrokes, copying files, and monitoring conversations, and as PCTL is the country’s largest ISP, most of Pakistan’s internet users were apparently exposed.
Media coverage of the May 2013 general elections, which led to the first transfer of power from one democratically elected government to another in the country’s history, reportedly provided voters with a range of viewpoints, despite the devotion of disproportionate airtime to paid advertisements that benefited large political parties. However, safety concerns prompted restrictions on reporting in certain regions. Armed groups coerced some news outlets into publishing denunciations of the election process, and cable operators blocked access to the popular stations Dawn TV and Geo TV after facing pressure from militant groups. The chief election commissioner directed all election officials to avoid giving statements to the media, undermining freedom of information. On the eve of the elections, veteran New York Times reporter and Islamabad bureau chief Declan Walsh was expelled from the country, prompting criticism from press freedom advocates.
The safety of journalists is a key concern in Pakistan. Intimidation by intelligence agencies and the security forces—including physical attacks and arbitrary, incommunicado detention—continues to take place. In August 2013, Karachi police kidnapped and assaulted reporter Ali Chishti, who writes frequently on security and intelligence issues for the Friday Times. He was released the following morning. Chishti later stated his belief that his captors were working for a third party and called for an investigation into the incident. In October, intelligence officials arrested Muhammad Zaib Mansoor, a journalist based in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, and questioned him on a series of “suspicious” telephone calls. Investigations into security forces’ past crimes against journalists remain inadequate. No arrests have been made in the case of investigative reporter Syed Saleem Shahzad, who was abducted and murdered in 2011, allegedly by the military intelligence agency.
Radical Islamists, mercenaries hired by feudal landlords or local politicians, and party activists have also been known to harass journalists and attack media offices. Reporters regularly face physical and verbal intimidation. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), at least five journalists were killed in connection with their work in 2013, and three others were killed for motives that CPJ was unable to confirm, making Pakistan one of the world’s deadliest countries for members of the press. In January, a car bomb exploded in the Balochistani capital of Quetta, killing three journalists and injuring three others, in addition to many bystanders. The journalists were at the scene covering a suicide bombing that had occurred only a few minutes earlier. In April, a suicide bombing killed a journalist and wounded two of his colleagues as they covered a political rally ahead of the elections in the city of Peshawar. In nearby Karak District in October, newspaper reporter Ayub Khan Khattak, who was investigating the region’s drug trade, was shot dead by suspected mafia members. Other organizations reported additional media casualties. In May, Ahmed Ali Joiya was shot and killed at a market in Punjab Province. He had been reporting on a local crime story prior to the murder, according to the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists. Media offices are also regularly targeted. On two occasions, in August and October, masked assailants opened fire on the offices of the Express Media Group in Karachi, injuring several staff members. In April, assailants in Sindh Province burned copies of the newspaper Dawn and threatened newsstand owners. In response to scathing coverage of an October 2012 attack on teenage education activist Malala Yousafzai by Taliban militants, Taliban leaders called for attacks on media organizations and journalists across the country. No arrests were made in any of these cases.
Impunity is the norm for such crimes, with nearly all murder cases from previous years remaining unsolved; the 2002 abduction and beheading of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl is the only exception. Local and international press freedom advocacy organizations established the Pakistan Coalition on Media Safety (PCOMS) in March 2013, and working in coordination with the United Nations, stakeholders proposed appointing a special prosecutor to investigate attacks and establishing protection mechanisms for journalists.
Conditions for reporters covering the ongoing conflict in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province remained especially difficult in 2013, as a number of correspondents were detained, threatened, expelled, kidnapped, attacked, or otherwise prevented from working, whether by Taliban militants and local tribal groups, criminal organizations, or the army and intelligence services. In February, veteran journalist Malik Mumtaz was shot and killed by unknown assailants as he drove to his home in North Waziristan. Also that week, Taliban militants opened fire on three reporters outside a press club in Swat District, though all three avoided injury.
Journalists’ ability to cover military operations in the FATA is hampered, as they can gain access only if they agree to become embedded with military units, which means that any reporting is subject to potential censorship. Media in general remain much more tightly restricted in the FATA than elsewhere in Pakistan. Independent radio is allowed only with permission from the FATA secretariat, and no newspapers are published there. Separately, in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, publications need special permission from the regional government to operate, and publications that support independence for Kashmir are generally prohibited. In the southern city of Karachi, increasing civil conflict in the last several years has made reporting more hazardous. In all of these regions, threats to journalists limited the news and information that was available to the general public.
Reporters in restive Balochistan Province face pressure and harassment from Balochi nationalists, Islamist groups, and the government. Several journalists in the region were killed or fled into exile in 2013 after receiving repeated threats. In March, two men on a motorcycle shot and killed Mehmood Ahmed Afridi, a reporter for the newspaper Intikhab. The Balochistan Liberation Army, an armed separatist group, claimed responsibility for the slaying. Haji Abdul Razzaq Baloch of the Daily Tawar, a local newspaper known for its separatist bent, went missing in March after leaving a friend’s house in Karachi. His body was discovered in August and showed signs of strangulation and torture, though the motive for the murder remained unclear. Armed groups in the province have also been known to target infrastructure and property belonging to news outlets. In April, unidentified assailants raided the Daily Tawar offices; the perpetrators stole computers and burned records and archives before fleeing. Concerns with safety have led many newspapers in Balochistan to stop publishing editorials or opinion articles.
Pakistan is home to hundreds of daily, weekly, and monthly news publications that publish in English, Urdu, and a number of regional languages. Several dozen all-news cable and satellite television channels—some of which broadcast from outside the country—provide live domestic news coverage, commentary, and call-in talk shows, informing viewers and shaping public opinion on current events. However, the government continues to control Pakistan Television and Radio Pakistan, the only free-to-air terrestrial broadcast outlets with a national reach; their staff receive directives from the Information Ministry, and their coverage supports official viewpoints. Private radio stations operate in some major cities but are prohibited from carrying news programming, and PEMRA imposes a maximum broadcast radius of 50 kilometers on private FM transmitters. In rural regions such as the FATA, illegal extremist radio is prominent, with radical Islamists broadcasting unchallenged propaganda. International television and radio broadcasts are usually available in Pakistan, with the exception of news channels based in India. The internet is not widely used, with about 11 percent of the population accessing the medium in 2013. However, blogs and social media are growing in popularity, and many traditional news outlets provide content over the internet.
Provincial and national authorities have used advertising boycotts and bribes to put economic pressure on media outlets or provide incentives to keep journalists in check. A ban on official advertisements with the Jang Group, whose Geo television station and various newspapers are known for their increasingly antigovernment editorial line, remained in effect in 2013. Both state and private interests, including the powerful intelligence agencies, reportedly pay for favorable press coverage, a practice that is exacerbated by the low salary levels of many journalists. In April 2013, the Supreme Court released a list of names of journalists, news agencies, and other entities that received payments totaling 1.7 billion rupees ($16 million) through a secret fund administered by the Pakistani government.