TODAY, on World Press Freedom Day, an ugly reality confronts us: never before has Pakistan’s media been in such deep peril.
Recently, the Freedom Network — a local media and development sector watchdog — released the State of Press Freedom in Pakistan 2020 report. According to its findings, there were at least 91 instances of attacks against the media and its practitioners during the last 12 months.
The threat has evolved from actual physical harm, particularly common during the war against terrorism in the country, towards a more insidious form of persecution where plausible deniability enables the perpetrators to oppress the media without any consequences for themselves.
Thereby is the fiction of a ‘free and independent media’ sustained. Consider that no less than 25pc of the violations documented in the Freedom Network report comprise written or verbal threats of dire consequences, with offline and online harassment making up 14pc.
The third category included 11 cases of murder or attempted murder (12pc). The perpetrators most often were state authorities (42pc) while 16pc of the incidents were attributed to political parties.
As always, the objective of these attacks is to browbeat the media into becoming an extension of the state, rather than functioning as an independent entity holding the latter accountable. Certainly, there are bad eggs in the media fraternity, just as there are in any segment of society, but the vast majority desires to simply do its job honestly and without unlawful interference.
However, a creeping authoritarianism in governance overall has been accompanied by increasingly brazen tactics targeting journalists, including fabricated or untenable court cases filed against them. In December, an anti-terrorism court sentenced veteran journalist Nasrullah Chaudhry to five years in jail for alleged possession of banned literature. Last month, the Sindh High Court acquitted him of the charge, a ludicrous one given that media persons can have in their possession all manner of documents for purely professional reasons. In March, NAB arrested the owner of the Jang media group, Mir Shakilur Rahman, in a land case that dates back 34 years.
There are some in the PTI government, however, who recognise that a free and independent media strengthens democracy, and that such independence is contingent upon ensuring the safety of its practitioners. The Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Bill drafted by the human rights ministry is a promising piece of proposed legislation. Among its several commendable features, it gives wide-ranging powers to a seven-member commission of inquiry — led by a former Supreme Court judge — to investigate and prosecute within 14 days all forms of harassment, coercion and violence against media professionals.
However, with the bill to be clubbed with an earlier one drafted by the information ministry, the end result could be a far weaker piece of legislation. There must be unambiguous support for a truly free and independent media, not further equivocation.
Civil servants rules
THE government has introduced the Civil Servants Rules, 2020, aimed at retiring superseded officials even before they reach the age of 60. The rules include a list of conditions that may enable the competent authorities within the government to send ‘deadwood’ among the bureaucrats home so that civil servants as a whole become more responsive to the requirements of service delivery and focus on their performance. The rules say that officials who may become eligible for early retirement will include those who receive three or more average performance evaluation reports; who have been twice recommended for supersession; found guilty of corruption; or have entered into a plea bargain with NAB or any investigating agency — and a few other such conditions. The government argues the rules will ensure better performance and a more efficient bureaucracy.
However, there is a genuine concern that these rules may end up weakening the bureaucracy and making it vulnerable to political manipulation. One of the key strengths of the bureaucratic structure — the so-called steel frame of governance — is the security of tenure which cannot be tampered with by the government of the day. It is this security that enables the bureaucracy to resist political pressures and uphold the rules and regulations upon which rests the edifice of governance. If this is weakened, or made dependent on individuals — whomsoever they may be — then we run a very real risk of officials scurrying to be in the good books of those who have the power to decide who stays in service and who is sent packing. The intention behind the formation of these rules may appear to be fair. But operationalising the rules is bound to create problems. In a highly politicised environment like ours, it would be particularly unwise to give governments the power to make decisions about the career fates of bureaucrats. What is to stop the government of the day from making such decisions on the basis of likes and dislikes? The committees and forums that have been given the responsibility to make such judgements as per the new rules also work under the political set-up and are therefore dependent on the leadership. There is no reason why the careers of thousands of bureaucrats should be put in the hands of committees which report to the political leadership. It would be advisable for the PTI government to review this decision and strengthen the bureaucracy instead of further weakening it.
A WEEK ago, Mirpurkhas-native Ahsan Jarwar was found hanging from a ceiling inside his home. According to residents, the deceased father of six had been facing extreme pressure to make ends meet and provide for his family. Under the weight of his circumstances, coupled with hopelessness, Jarwar took his own life. While we cannot say with certainty what was going through his mind in his last hours, this is a familiar tragedy that we hear about over and over again: desperate poverty ruthlessly seizes the lives, livelihoods and mental well-being of countless citizens. Nearly a quarter of Pakistan’s population lives below the poverty line, while millions of others stand perilously on the brink. For decades, successive governments have failed to build better health infrastructures or ensure greater social protection measures for the most vulnerable groups. Now, in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, economic slowdown and extended lockdowns —which are deeply hurting the poorest sections of society ie those who have no choice but to live hand to mouth — it is likely that similar tragedies will be on the rise.
In March, a UN Conference on Trade and Development report stated that the economies of developing countries such as Pakistan will suffer the heaviest blows during the pandemic. Another UN report warned that the health crisis will further widen inequality gaps. Then, more recently, the World Food Programme predicted multiple famines in the near future, threatening much of the global population with hunger and starvation, which could go on to create deep social fissures and political discord. Already, food riots have been witnessed in some parts of the world, revealing the fragility of the systems in place, which perhaps seemed sturdy only a few months ago. There is no good reason for some to sleep so comfortably at night, while others lie awake, worrying about how they will feed their children the next day, or the day after.