Pakistan's Eroding Space for Free Expression

The failure to ensure the freedom of expression has emerged as the greatest pitfall of Pakistan's current democratic system. The civilian government is too fragile to prevent the army and the intelligence agencies from banning newspaper sites.
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A new report called "Challenges for Independent News Media in Pakistan" by the Washington-based Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) says physical safety is the number one concern of journalists working in Pakistan. Declared as the world's deadliest place for reporters for the past two consecutive years, Pakistan has made little progress in improving the working conditions for journalists. Written by veteran journalist Sherry Ricchiardi, the report recommends imparting of literature, such as Dart Center's "Tragedies and Journalists," in local languages educating journalists how to grapple with trauma caused by reporting from conflict zones.

While Pakistan habitually rejects reports by international human rights groups by claiming that they are meant to 'tarnish' the country's image, officials even do not bother to make a public statement on a report that specifically raises the issue of freedom of expression.

A couple of developments recorded after the release of the CIMA report suggest that space for freedom of expression is alarmingly shrinking in the Pakistani society. State functionaries and several non-state actors are blamed for employing pressure tactics to influence journalist's professional work and also to block the free flow of information.

On August 1, Reporters Without Borders (R.S.F.) said a B.B.C. reporter had been "forced to leave the city [of Quetta where he worked] for an undisclosed location after he was threatened" by the Baloch Liberation Front (B.L.F.), an underground ethnic nationalist group, on July 21. In a statement, which the BBC also published on its Urdu webpage, the international media watchdog said it took these threats "very seriously" and called upon the Pakistani government to "improve the safety of those who work in the media."

The Pakistani government has defied such calls in the past, leaving little hope that authorities would independently investigate the killing, abduction and torture of journalists. Although article 19 of the Pakistani Constitution grants every citizen the "right to freedom of speech and expression, and... freedom of the press," officials often deny these freedoms to the citizens by imposing restrictions under a number of vague pretexts. For instance, Pakistani citizens can be deprived of their right to freedom of expression if their freedom contests "the interest of the glory of Islam" or "the integrity, security or defense of Pakistan." There is barely clarity or consensus between the powerful military and the elected parliament on how to define these vague terms.

The Pakistani state has historically set a negative precedent by patronizing and glorifying coercive tactics toward the media. The non-state actors, which include ethnic nationalist groups and extremist religious organizations, have, ironically, learned these techniques from the government and now expect to enjoy the same level of authority and impunity against the media.

Besides journalists, attacks on independent writers and poets have also made headlines in recent days.

On July 31, for instance, armed men suspected of links with the government raided the house of a prominent poetess and writer in the southwestern Balochistan province. Nausheen Qambarani, whose poetry is critical of Islamabad's discriminatory and exploitative policies against the native Baloch people, says the attackers had endeavored to abduct and assassinate her along with her little daughter. Ms. Qambarani, who also teaches English literature at a university in Quetta city, says she escaped unhurt because she was not at home when the raid took place. However, the incident has opened floodgates of criticism from writers and intellectuals who castigate the government's approach toward managing difference of opinion.

Meanwhile, the debate over Internet censorship carried out by the Pakistani government has once again gained momentum in the Pakistani media although CIMA's report does not discuss in detail the motives behind this disturbing trend.

According to a report in the Lahore-based Daily Times, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (P.T.A.) has blocked five websites, including that of an Urdu newspaper. Quoting an anonymous source, the newspaper said reasons behind blocking of the websites was to obstruct international community from getting information about "atrocities being committed by the government and paramilitary forces in Balochistan."

The Daily Times quoted a seasoned journalist and a former speaker of the Balochistan Assembly complain that the Pakistani government was denying people the right to access information. He said, "This is not democracy but dictatorship."

On August 2, the BBC Urdu published a detailed report on Internet censorship in Pakistan questioning official justification for blocking news sites. The report titled "What is blasphemous? Who decides?" quoted an official of the respected Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (H.R.C.P.) say that official discrimination toward certain political opposition groups could be read between the lines as the cause of the ban on news sites. Otherwise, he added, webpages belonging to banned terrorist groups were still operating and accessible inside Pakistan whereas sites committed to providing news had been blocked which clearly highlighted misplaced officials priorities.

The failure to ensure the freedom of expression has emerged as the greatest pitfall of Pakistan's current democratic system. The civilian government is too fragile to prevent the mighty army and the intelligence agencies from banning newspaper sites or punishing journalists. The parliament, not the military, should decide whether or not certain news sites should be blocked or banned. The parliament is less likely, as compared to the military, to endorse limiting the freedom of expression and information. Pakistan's democrats have to fight for people' right to expression because an independent media is extremely indispensable for a Pakistan under full civilian rule.

The views expressed in his article are personal and do not reflect the policy of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) where the writer is currently a Regan-Fascell Democracy Fellow.

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