Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) held a press conference at the Lahore Press Club to mark the World Press Freedom Day. DRF and the Network of Women Journalists for Digital Rights are perturbed by the rapidly eroding space for freedom of expression in the country, in both online and offline spaces.
In a statement issued, the Network stated: “The shrinking space for freedom of expression in Pakistan is extremely disturbing and stifling the citizens’ right to free expression will only lead to the denial of all other human rights.
“Over the past one year, a range of measures have been implemented to restrict Pakistani media’s voice, these have led to an existential crisis in the media industry with massive lay-offs, pay cuts and shutdown of news outlets. Dwindling advertisement revenues for print and electronic media not only from the government but also the private sector have brought several news organisations on the verge of closure and/or staff layoffs in hundreds. This coupled with extensive censorship campaigns have resulted in shrinking the media industry and curbing free and independent voices.
“There have also been shutdowns of websites, and regulation of social media, asking Twitter to suspend accounts and submitting thousands of requests to Facebook to take down pages and posts critical of the government. Other methods, including clampdowns, stoppages, manipulation and enforcement of the draconian Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 are also rampant.
“The proposal by the government to unite all media regulatory bodies into one body – the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA) also seems to be a covert attempt at censorship rather than regulation. The inclusion of regulation of online speech and social media among PMRA’s functions is particularly disturbing and impractical as it aims to grant licences to social media journalists, without which one would not be able to publicly post news, opinions and other content of a public nature on their social media channels.”
At the press conference, Mehmal Sarfraz, stated, “there is so much censorship these days that it is not an understatement to say that it is even worse than dictatorial regimes. Many people who have faced General Zia Ul Haq’s regime say that the censorship these days is as bad, if not worse, than that time. Democracy ensures press freedom but why is it that this democratic government is curbing press freedom? On this World Press Freedom Day, as a woman I would like to say that Pakistani media is dominated by men, like many other industries including politics and judiciary.” She also said that unless women take up roles in editorial positions, the issue of gender insensitivity in news stories will not be solved.
DRF’s Executive Director, Nighat Dad, noted that, “freedom of expression of every citizen is under threat and online free speech is being curtailed by state authorities on a regular basis. Individuals, even those without any significant following, are under threat online if they challenge the popular narrative which shows how citizens of the country need to censor themselves in order to remain safe. It is important for the state to protect its citizens and for the law enforcement agencies to be more accessible and transparent when they seek to regulate people’s speech online.”
Sabahat Zakariya stated, “we cannot narrow down freedom of the press to only censorship, although it is obviously one of the greatest issues that threaten journalistic freedom, but beyond that the fact that so many Pakistani journalists receive their pays with considerable delay and often have to spend months without a salary also limits the possibility of in-depth and investigative journalism. Nobody can be a social justice warrior on an empty stomach.”
The Network emphasized that: “The government needs to take appropriate steps to prohibit and prevent unauthorized, illegal and unlawful interference with freedom of expression in the country. On the other hand, those responsible for expressing and disseminating information to the general public need to act responsibly and ethically to ensure that an impartial and objective viewpoint is presented.”