Pakistan urged to protect press freedom ahead of elections

Rights groups call on caretaker PM to allow independent coverage of the election campaigns ahead of July 25 vote.

Pakistan will elect a new government this month as the ruling PML-N completed its five-year term [BK Bangash/AP]

There are growing concerns over media censorship and violence against journalists in Pakistan as the country prepares to hold general elections later this month. 

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a US-based advocacy group, urged Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister Nasir-ul-Mulk to take swift measures to ensure press freedom and an open media environment in the lead up to the July 25 polls. 

“We are concerned that recent events in Pakistan signal that the media is not free to report and we urge your government to take necessary measures to guarantee journalists’ ability to work without fear of intimidation or reprisal,” Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director, said in a letter addressed to Mulk on Monday.

CPJ said it has documented a series of “worrisome occurrences” in recent months, some of which have “prevented the free distribution of news or that appear to be aimed at intimidating journalists into silence”. 

Pakistan ranks 139 out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) World Press Freedom Index, and attacks against journalists and other media professionals – particularly those deemed critical of the state – are common.

CPJ’s letter comes after similar concerns were raised last month by media watchdog RSF and its local partner in Pakistan, Freedom Network (FN).

A joint letter they addressed to the caretaker prime minister said: “What with threats, abductions, beatings, illegal suspensions and disrupted distribution, media and journalists are being harassed by the military and intelligence services, as well by political actors, in a clear attempt to intimidate them and prevent independent reporting ahead of the elections.”

‘Fostering fear’

Last month, prominent Pakistani social activist and newspaper columnist Gul Bukhari Bukhari, 52, who is known for her strident criticism of the country’s powerful military, was briefly abducted by several unidentified men while on her way to a television news studio in the eastern city of Lahore. 

In a separate incident on the same day, investigative journalist and news anchor Asad Kharal was also assaulted in Lahore by “some persons wearing masks,” he said.

During a June press conference, Major General Asif Ghafoor, Pakistan military’s spokesperson, accused a number of journalists of redistributing “anti-state and anti-military propaganda”. 

In mid-May, the distribution of Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest and most respected daily newspaper, was disrupted in several areas across the country, a source told Al Jazeera, allegedly over its publication of an interview with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that implied military complicity in the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

Meanwhile, in April, the Geo News television station, one of the country’s most popular news networks, came back on air after weeks of being blocked by cable operators, also allegedly at the behest of the military.

“These incidents foster fear among journalists that prevents them from working effectively,” wrote CPJ in its letter.

“The media should not be punished for reporting statements from politicians or political parties, even when they are controversial.”

Pakistanis will cast their ballots to elect a new government later this month as the ruling PML-N party completed its five-year term on June 1. 

Assuming elections are held without incident, this would be only the second time in Pakistan’s history that a civilian government will complete its term and hand over power to a succeeding civilian government.

Mulk, a former chief justice, was appointed the caretaker prime minister to oversee the elections. 

Source: Al Jazeera