Freedom of the Press
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Pakistani media came under increased political pressure in 2014 as part of a broader confrontation—peaking in September and finally ending in December—between the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and opposition protesters who reportedly enjoyed some support from the military. Two prominent journalists, Raza Rumi and Hamid Mir, survived assassination attempts in March and April, respectively, and Mir’s Geo television network later suffered various forms of harassment from security forces, protesters, and media regulators. Also during the year, journalists continued to face a high level of violence and threats from separatist and Islamist militant groups. Impunity remained the norm for such crimes, despite a landmark conviction for a 2011 murder and Sharif’s public commitment to improve security conditions for the media.
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. 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. This makes reporting on judicial matters perilous for most journalists.
The Protection of Pakistan Act, an antiterrorism law adopted in July 2014, gives security forces expansive powers to search, detain, and use force against suspects, but also includes vague references to “internet offenses and other offenses related to information technology.” The provisions raised concerns that the law could be used against journalists and other news providers.
Mir Shakeel-ur-Rehman, owner of Geo TV’s parent company, was convicted of blasphemy in November 2014 over a controversial entertainment broadcast in May. He was sentenced to 26 years in prison plus fines, as were a morning-show host and two celebrity guests, though the court was located in the remote, semiautonomous Gilgit-Baltistan region, and its ruling was reportedly not applicable in Pakistan proper. An appeal was pending at year’s end.
In addition to direct legal repercussions, journalists who are charged under blasphemy laws are subject to extralegal threats and violence. Shoaib Adil, editor of the magazine Nia Zamana, was accused of blasphemy in June 2014, ostensibly over his role in publishing a 2007 book by a member of the persecuted Ahmadi religious minority. A group of Muslim activists had threatened Adil and demanded that the charges be filed shortly after Nia Zamana reported on the May murder of a human rights lawyer who had defended a blasphemy defendant.
Journalists who uncover official corruption sometimes face legal reprisals. In December, a team of investigative reporters with the private television channel ARY News were charged with smuggling arms themselves after they exposed state railway officials taking bribes to transport weapons illegally.
Accessing official information remains difficult, and existing provisions for obtaining public records are ineffective. Since 2012, the government and lawmakers have been engaged in drafting new freedom of information legislation to replace a 2002 ordinance on the topic. A Senate committee approved the latest version of the draft in July 2014, but it retained problematic exemptions for information on matters including national security, economic affairs, and international relations. No further progress was reported by year’s end.
At the provincial level, the governments of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa passed freedom of information legislation in 2013, but the ordinances faced criticism for vague language and a large number of exemptions, and the Punjab version lacked explicit protections for whistle-blowers. In 2014 the two provinces established information commissions to oversee implementation of their laws.
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. However, as of late 2014 it still lacked provincial offices, and many staff positions reportedly remained vacant.
Members of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), which regulates broadcast media, are appointed or approved by the government, and the agency has a record of using heavy-handed tactics. Divisions within PEMRA emerged in May 2014, apparently reflecting the broader struggle between the government and its opponents, allegedly including some in the military, during the year. Nevertheless, PEMRA continued to issue temporary suspensions of certain broadcasts or programs. In June, PEMRA suspended the license of Geo TV for 15 days and imposed a fine of 10 million rupees ($100,000) after it aired allegations that the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate was involved in the attempted assassination of Geo anchor Hamid Mir in April. Later in June, the affiliated Geo Entertainment channel received a 30-day suspension and a fine of 10 million rupees on the grounds that it had violated the code of conduct by airing blasphemous content on one of its shows. In October, PEMRA imposed a similar fine and suspension on ARY News for allegedly carrying slanderous statements against the judiciary. ARY News anchor Mubashir Lucman and his program were suspended in compliance with a court order as part of the same case. ARY News had been sharply critical of the Sharif government in recent months.
The authorities are believed to engage in online surveillance, and the communications of some journalists are reportedly monitored. Such practices encourage self-censorship and deter contacts with vulnerable sources.
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. Armed groups, political parties, and state institutions have also coerced news outlets into publishing denunciations of their opponents. 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.
Websites and blogs addressing sensitive subjects are routinely blocked, and the government has increased censorship of allegedly blasphemous material in recent years. YouTube remained inaccessible as of 2014 after the government blocked it in September 2012 in response to unrest surrounding a controversial anti-Islam film. In May 2014, the National Assembly adopted a resolution calling on the government to remove the YouTube ban.
Media access to certain parts of the country is restricted, either by special government regulations or an increased threat of violence, effectively reducing the news and information available to residents. Conditions for reporters covering the ongoing civil conflict in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and some districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province remain difficult, with journalists subject to detention, threats, expulsion, abduction, attacks, and other interference, whether by Taliban militants and local tribal groups, criminal organizations, or the army and intelligence services. Journalists’ ability to cover military operations in the FATA is limited, 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 March 2014, at least 20 attackers ransacked the offices of the Kashmir daily Chingari and beat its editor after it reported on an allegedly illegal construction project.
In the southern city of Karachi, increasing civil conflict in the last several years has made reporting more hazardous. In January 2014, three staff members of Express TV were killed when gunmen on motorcycles attacked one of the channel’s vehicles in the city. In February, a bomb was found outside the offices of ARY News, and grenades were thrown at the gates of the newspapers Business Recorder and Nawa-i-Waqt.
Reporters in restive Balochistan Province face pressure and harassment from Balochi nationalists, Islamist groups, and the government. Several local journalists have been killed or forced into exile in recent years after receiving repeated threats. In February 2014, Mohammad Afzal Khawaja, a reporter for the Balochistan Times and the affiliated daily Zamana, was shot and killed along with his driver. Also that month, Ijaz Ahmed Mengal of the Daily Intekhab and Daily Khabardar newspapers was shot dead by gunmen on a motorcycle. In August, three media workers were killed when unidentified assailants opened fire in the offices of Online International News Network in Quetta, and the Khuzdar Press Club was forced to close for 10 days following threats to local journalists. Foreign journalists can also face repercussions for reporting on Balochistan. In February, British journalist Willem Marx was denied an entry visa shortly after releasing a book on the situation in the province.
Geo TV and its affiliated outlets suffered violence and intimidation in several forms during 2014, particularly in connection with the political standoff between the Sharif government and its opponents. The most prominent incident was the attempted assassination of Hamid Mir in Karachi in April, which he attributed to the ISI. In the months of controversy that followed, employees, vehicles, and offices of Geo TV and the Jang newspaper group—owned by Geo’s parent company—were attacked or harassed across the country. In May, for example, editor Zafar Aheer of the daily Jang was badly beaten by masked men in the Punjabi city of Multan. During the opposition protests in the capital that began in August, Geo TV and its staff were attacked with clubs or stones, threatened, and denounced as unpatriotic. In September, opposition party supporters also occupied the state television building and assaulted its employees.
Other high-profile attacks on journalists in 2014 were committed by Islamist militants, criminal groups, or unknown assailants. In January, Shan Dahar of Abb Takk TV was shot and killed by unidentified attackers in Larkana, Sindh Province; he had recently reported on illegal pharmaceutical sales. In March, journalist Abrar Tanoli was fatally shot by unidentified gunmen in Mansehra, north of Islamabad, having previously received threats. He was a reporter for the local newspapers Daily Mahsib and Daily Shamal, and a photographer for Reuters. Later that month, gunmen in Lahore attempted to assassinate Raza Rumi, a columnist, editor at the Friday Times, and talk-show host for the Express Media Group. Rumi’s driver was killed. According to police, the sectarian militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi organized the attack due to the journalist’s outspoken criticism of Islamist extremism and the blasphemy law. A number of other reporters with the Express group were targeted with death threats and bomb attacks on their homes during 2014. In October, Yaqoob Shehzad of Daily Express was killed in Hafizabad, Punjab Province. In a separate attack in that city two days earlier, gunmen killed Nadeem Haider of Daily Dunya.
In total, the Committee to Protect Journalists was able to confirm that at least three journalists and three media workers were killed in connection with their work in 2014, making Pakistan one of the world’s deadliest countries for members of the press.
Impunity is the norm for such crimes, with nearly all murder cases from previous years remaining unsolved. 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. However, in a rare victory, a Karachi court convicted six people in March 2014 for their role in the 2011 murder of Geo TV journalist Wali Khan Babar.
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 14 percent of the population accessing the medium in 2014. However, blogs and social media are growing in popularity, and many traditional news outlets provide content over the internet.
Cable television operators occasionally pressure media outlets to censor views that could conflict with their business interests, or suspend transmission of certain channels in response to threats. In May 2014, many cable providers—apparently under pressure from the military—dropped Geo TV from their services or gave it a less prominent position. In July, four unidentified men set fire to the offices of WorldCall, a cable television operator in Karachi, possibly because it was transmitting Geo channels. In October and December, cable providers suspended broadcasts of multiple news channels in Karachi and Balochistan after receiving threats.
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. 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.